With 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street', Tim Burton brings his talent for "reimagining" famous existing properties to bear on Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning play, which was itself based on tales of a legendary bogeyman originating in Victorian-era "penny dreadful" pulp novels. The character's exploits had previously been told in numerous stage and screen adaptations over the decades, but that didn't stop Burton from putting his own idiosyncratic stamp on the material. Amusingly, during its theatrical release, the studio tried to disguise the fact that the film is a musical, promoting it in TV ads as a straight-up horror movie. In fact, the picture has plenty to offer both gorehounds and their significant others. It is indeed a very rare movie that can successfully combine romance and singing with grisly serial murder and cannibalism.
The director's favorite leading man, Johnny Depp, stars in the title role as a once-meek barber whose wife and child were stolen by a corrupt judge. Convicted on trumped-up charges, the man formerly known as Benjamin Barker spent years in exile before rechristening himself with the name Sweeney Todd and returning to London. With help from the infatuated Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), self-proclaimed purveyor of "the worst pies in London," Todd establishes a barbering practice above the woman's shop, promising customers "the closest shave you will ever know." The business is of course a ruse that allows Todd to practice his blood-letting skills on the dregs of society while plotting revenge against the man who ruined his life. The victims also provide Lovett with a fresh supply of exotic pie fillings.
Sondheim's musical is renowned for its soaring operatic emotions, witty lyrics, and bracing social satire. The play's blend of dark humor and over-the-top violence proves a perfect fit for Burton, who gleefully indulges in his fixations with Grand Guignol theatrics and classic horror movies. The director's perfectly-crafted gloomy visuals are positively drenched in geysers of ruby red blood. Depp is brooding and charismatic as always, his performance carefully modulated to maintain a hint of sympathy for the man even during his darkest deeds. Carter is a riot as the demented Mrs. Lovett, ever-practical in her homicidal complicity, and even capable of genuine love and motherly affection. Unfortunately, neither performer is a trained singer, and their song vocals (while not awful by any means) are merely acceptable. Supporting roles are capably filled by Alan Rickman as the evil judge, Timothy Spall as his foppish sidekick, and Sacha Baron Cohen as a preening rival barber.
Because Burton is a stronger visual stylist than he is a storyteller, the success of his films is often dependent on the quality of the source he's working from. 'Sweeney Todd' gives him plenty of juicy material to play with. The movie is a faithful (though condensed) adaptation of the stage play, and yet also unmistakably a Tim Burton production from start to finish, guided by his signature sensibilities in art design, costumes, and makeup. If anything, the film is a little too much Tim Burton. The director's wild-haired design for Sweeney begs the question of how such an obviously-deranged lunatic could possibly convince customers to come to his barber shop (especially when none who enter ever leave). Nevertheless, a movie like this isn't meant to be realistic. This is Gothic melodrama and operatic tragedy, and it works beautifully.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Dreamworks Home Entertainment (via their current distributor Paramount Home Entertainment) released 'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' on DVD back in April of this year. Despite that, the movie's High-Def debut was delayed due to fallout from the end of the HD format war. In the meantime, impatient viewers were able to import the title from the UK, where Warner Home Video distributes it on Blu-ray. Finally, six months later, Dreamworks and Paramount have issued their own Blu-ray, which is nearly identical in quality and content to the UK disc.
The Dreamworks disc contains the R-rated American theatrical cut of the film. I've heard it claimed that the international release was edited with different, bloodier camera angles during the climactic murders. Honestly, I've seen both versions and I'll be damned if I can tell them apart. If there really is a difference, it's incredibly subtle.
As best as I can tell, the Paramount Blu-ray is sourced from the same 1080p/VC-1 transfer as the earlier Warner Bros. UK disc. I compared the two back-to-back and didn't notice any substantive difference. Both versions have slightly opened the mattes from the original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio to fill a 16:9 screen (standard practice for both Paramount and Warner).
Like Burton's earlier 'Sleepy Hollow', 'Sweeney' features exceedingly dark photography with carefully sculpted use of light and shadows. Colors are stark and desaturated, except for the exaggerated red blood. It's really quite beautiful, but more than most movies will require viewing on a display with a strong contrast ratio and accurate calibration settings. Due to its dark nature, this isn't necessarily the most vibrant and popping of pictures, yet fine detail is well represented (notice the crisply delineated cobblestones, bricks, and even facial whiskers) and the image has a very good sense of depth.
The photography is a faintly grainy to set the proper horror movie mood. This is most noticeable during the opening scene, and frankly not much after that. The movie is nowhere near as grainy as 'Sleepy Hollow'. Whether the studio applied some digital grain removal, or Burton just used a different film stock, I'm not going to speculate. I didn't notice any typical signs of excessive DNR. However, Depp's facial features are occasionally airbrushed to smooth out his complexion. That's a deliberate (if annoying) filmmaking technique that Burton used more heavily in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory', not a transfer flaw. All in all, the Blu-ray looks excellent.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack has exceptionally deep and resonant musical clarity. When the organ hits its deepest registers, bass waves will reverberate through your whole body. The top end is equally impressive, with a grand orchestra swelling up to fill the entire soundstage, including immersive use of the stereo surround channels. Fidelity is excellent across the board.
If I have any complaint, it's that the song vocals are often a little weak, especially Carter's. That has more to do with the singing talents of the actors than the technical attributes of the soundtrack. Dialogue and sound effects are suitably crisp and clear. The disc sounds terrific.
The Blu-ray carries over all of the bonus features from the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD, and offers many of them in High Definition video.
'Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street' is one of Tim Burton's strongest movies of recent years. The Blu-ray has excellent picture and sound, as well as a good selection of bonus features (mostly in HD). This is certainly worth a recommendation.