18 of 37 people found the following review helpful
great production design,but...
, February 26, 2008
This review is from: Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition) (DVD)
It seems everyone is coming to this film with some preconceived notions about what it should or should not be. Some are too attached to the stage production and others are too eager to consider what was done on stage as irrelevant. Some consider Sondheim a god and others don't. I think I'm somewhere in the middle of all that. I love much of Sondheim's work, but I don't think he is the greatest theater composer and I don't think "Sweeney Todd" is the greatest of all musicals. I've never seen this performed live, but I am very familiar with the video of the stage production starring Lansbury and Hearn as well as the Broadway Cast Recording.
The film is remarkably faithful to the stage production, but given Tim Burton's take on the material and the casting, I think the movie would actually have been more successful if it had been less faithful to the stage play. By adhering so closely to the source material, without retaining certain key elements that made that material work, Burton has made a movie that I found very frustrating and unsatisfying.
The movie looks great. The photography and production design are stunning.
The young lovers, a necessary plot device, but quite annoying in the stage production, are well cast, have had their roles judiciously parred down and are quite tolerable here. However, I still feel that the song "Johanna", despite having one of Sondheim's most beautiful melodies, also has some of the dopiest lyrics he has ever written.
The Beggar Woman is also a little annoying in the play, but in the movie her role has not only been severely parred down but cleaned up and consequently the impact of her ultimate fate is badly dulled, robbing the ending of much of it's drama. Some people in the audience seemed confused about who she was.
My impression from the play has always been that Toby is supposed to be a young man or teenager who is somewhat mentally disadvantaged. The movie has turned him into a little boy who seems to be sharp as a tack mentally, although much of the dialogue still refers to him as being dim witted. Sure, having a little boy makes the ending a little more shocking, but I'm not sure it makes sense dramatically.
Now the big problem. Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. How misconceived are these characterizations? I might have bought Johnny Depp's take on Sweeney had it not been paired with Bonham-Carter's Lovett, but the two together just don't cut it (no pun intended). They are both so enervated right from the beginning that it's hard to believe they could ever conceive of or carry out a plan like this. Mrs. Lovett's character is the real problem here. Certainly it could not have been played in a movie as broadly as Angela Lansbury played it on stage, however, an adaptation of that characterization would have worked. Mrs. Lovett should be anything but enervated. She is the planner. She's a practical woman and a survivor and is constantly working, conniving, planning, plotting. Sweeney may have dreams of vengeance, but it's Mrs. Lovett who makes it work, she's the muscle in this enterprise. Sweeney may be obsessed with death, but Mrs. Lovett is very much alive. Helena Bonham-Carter seems half dead before the movie starts. At one time Meryl Streep was mentioned as a possible Mrs. Lovett and we can only dream about what that performance would have been like.
I also reject the notion that one has to choose between singers and actors. There are many people who are perfectly capable of doing both, although they may not have the star power of Johnny Depp or the personal relationships of Helena Bonham-Carter. The inability of the principals to actually sing this music means that they are totally unable to invest the songs with any kind of nuance or variety or character. After a while I found the monotone in which the music was performed to be tiresome - making all the music performed by these two sound alike.
And what happened to the humor? At first I thought Tim Burton had made a choice to suck virtually all the humor out of the play, but the more I think about it I've come to the conclusion that he probably didn't get it in the first place. I never dreamed I'd encounter a performance of "A Little Priest" that would garner not one single laugh. This was the fault of both the lackluster vocals and the pedestrian staging. Did Burton really think we needed to actually see a priest, a fop, a green grocer, a runny pie to get the jokes? Also, how are we supposed to enjoy the jokes when the characters making them don't even seem to get them or be amused by them?
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