In just about every second of "Sweeney Todd" you get what looks like a movie that could have only come from the delightfully twisted mind of Tim Burton. Which, of course, it didn't, exactly.
Just as the Coens did perfectly with Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men," Burton here has adapted another's work, Stephen Sondheim's famed musical, and made it all his own. But whereas the Coens made their mark largely with dialogue, most of what will linger with you for a long time after watching "Sweeney Todd" is its stark and stunning look.
Burton's and Todd's London is indeed "a hole in the world like a great black pit/and the vermin of the world inhabit it," but much of the joy in watching "Sweeney Todd" is in seeing the bits of color seep through, from Mrs. Lovett's hair as she descends the stairwell from the barbershop to the blood, buckets and buckets which we all know will eventually cover the screen (but more about that later.)
As a musical, I'm sure it helped that, although I do know more than a bit about Broadway, about "Sweeney Todd" I knew very little to nothing at all going in. Even with Sondheim directly involved, there were certainly beloved songs that had to be chopped to make this clock in at less than two hours. And one thing that was left out and was a definite plus was any appearance by the musical butcher himself, Danny Elfman. Only after the opening credits had finished was I able to get over my fear that a blood-spattered Oompa-Loompa was gonna pop out at any second.
As he made clear in the New York Times recently, Sondheim considers this easily one of the best musical adaptations of Broadway to the big screen yet, and I have to agree with him. I can't quite go as far as he did in attacking the more phonily staged numbers of "West Side Story," for which I still have undying love, but he's right that there is a fluidity to "Sweeney Todd" that never lets you think you're watching a filmed stage musical rather than a natural movie that just happens to be full of singing.
And how do our main singers fare in this? Extremely and surprisingly well. I don't think Johnny Depp (the demon barber himself) or Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett) will be headed to Broadway themselves anytime soon, but they each bring their own strengths to the roles and take them over. Depp never leaves any doubt that Sweeney Todd is, indeed, just mad as a diseased cow, and Bonham Carter takes Mrs. Lovett in a completely different direction from what has been done before on stage by Angela Lansbury or Patti Lupone, channeling her inner Bellatrix to make the pie maker's many funny lines even more twisted.
There was one moment near the beginning when I feared this movie was going to turn toward "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" territory rather than something approaching Burton's best work, which for me is still "The Nightmare Before Christmas." It comes as Sweeney Todd gets off the boat and heads into London. Rather than letting us take it in, the camera suddenly zooms through the streets, jumping from spot to spot until it finally rests at Mrs. Lovett's shop. It was just thoroughly out of place, but luckily just about the only discordant in this otherwise very pleasing piece. (My only other complaint, and it's really just a quibble, is that I had heard Anthony Head of "Buffy" fame was going to be in this, but if it was he had exactly one line in the market scene stolen away by Sacha Baron Cohen.)
But what about all that blood? Well, if you went into a Tim Burton movie with the words "Demon Barber" in the title and weren't ready for a river of blood to flow than you simply need to do more homework before going to the movies. And yes, when Todd does indeed start cutting throats rather than hair (I really can't be giving too much away here, can I?), there does seem to be blood all over the screen, but it really couldn't have ended any other way. Watching as it slowly consumes the formerly almost colorless palate is the perfect way to convey Todd's descent into complete madness, and the final blood-covered scene is one that will stick with you for a long, long time.
But, unfortunately, just about the only things left standing at the end of this bloodbath were those damn Chipmunks, who managed to hold onto third place and knock "Sweeney Todd" down to fifth (behind even "Charlie Wilson's War," which I also thoroughly enjoyed, but more about that tomorrow.) Though it's obviously not for everyone, I hope more people will take a chance on "Sweeney Todd" this week, because if you have a slightly warped view of the world it indeed makes just about the perfect Christmas movie. Peace out, and have a merry, merry Christmas!