They say timing is everything in Hollywood, and that was certainly true for the 2004 film adaptation of the Broadway smash 'The Phantom of the Opera.' First produced for the stage in 1986, it took nearly twenty years for the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical extravaganza to hit the big screen, long after the play had first captured the cultural zeitgeist. Produced on a lavish budget of over $70 million, the film barely scraped in $50 million in domestic box office receipts, disappearing to video stores as quickly as it faded out of the public's consciousness.
Perhaps things would have been different had 'Phantom' hit theaters a decade earlier, when its sensibilities were a bit more in vogue. On stage, it was one of Broadway's hottest tickets in the '80s and early '90s, but its appeal has since been diminished by weak touring company productions, and its box office sales have been usurped by far hipper, post-modern stage smashes as 'Hairspray,' 'Avenue Q' and the unstoppable kitsch of 'Mamma Mia.' 'Phantom' was already a dated anachronism by the dawn of the new millennium, which made a big-screen version about as commercially appealing as a hip-hop 'Cats.'
For those unfamiliar with the story of 'The Phantom of the Opera,' it has been told and retold so many times it almost seems like a fairy tale, not based on the famous book by Gaston LeRoux. The Phantom (here played by Gerald Butler) is a disfigured musical genius who lives hidden deep within the bowels of the Paris Opera House. When a young musical sensation named Christine (Emmy Rossum) becomes the Opera House's new star, the Phantom is bewitched, and begins terrorizing the opera company to woo the love of his life. Needless to say, romantic tragedy ensues.
Sticking more or less faithfully to both the original source material as well as the Webber-Rice play, the movie version of 'Phantom' is a handsome, earnest, lively film. Director Joel ('Lost Boys,' 'St. Elmo's Fire') Schumacher would not seem the most likely candidate to helm a big-screen version of 'Phantom,' but Schumacher has never been an ironic filmmaker. He plays the material absolutely straight, which probably doomed the film commercially, but gives it a timeless feel not found in far more clever (but instantly dated) modern musicals like 'Moulin Rouge' and 'Chicago.'
Indeed, as I watched 'Phantom,' I had to constantly remind myself which decade I was in. By 30 minutes into the film, when Christine takes her famous descent into the bowels of the Opera House with the Phantom by way of gondola, I felt like I had stepped into some weird musical mishmash of a big-hair '80s Heart video and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Funny, campy, cringe-inducing yet strangely endearing all at the same time, this 'Phantom' absolutely refuses to even bat an eyelash in the direction of hip irony. That makes it cheesy to the extreme, but oddly captivating -- though perhaps not in the way intended.
Admittedly, I am probably not the target audience for the sappy sentiment of 'Phantom.' Nor am I much a fan of Webber's musical style, a sort of pop-opera mash-up that occasionally produces a nice tune (the title theme of 'Phantom' has a great, devilish bass line that is impossible not to tap your foot to), but more often than not revels in Disney-esque blandness. But despite all that, I have to admit that I found myself roped in by the end of the film's 142 minutes. Perhaps that is more a tribute more to the power of LeRoux's original creation than Schumacher's penchant for overblown theatrics, but I did genuinely care what happened to Christine and the Phantom. And while I can't say I shed any real tears during film's predictable, tragic climax (really, do I need to tell you what happens?), but it did kinda make me glad that earnest, sincere romantic films are still being made in Hollywood. Even if no one is going to see them anymore.
My unexpected appreciation for 'Phantom of the Opera' continued with the film's impressive picture quality. As I wrote when I first reviewed the HD DVD version back in April, the film's photography and visual design expertly straddle the line between technical razzle-dazzle and a palpable sense of reality. It also holds up very well six months on since the launch of the next-gen formats. Half a year can be a long time in terms of maturing technology, but 'Phantom of the Opera' remains a top-shelf high-def image, regardless of format.
A lavish, sumptuously-mounted film, 'Phantom' is certainly overflowing with color, texture and subtle lighting, which quite frankly got somewhat lost on the still-fine-looking standard DVD release from 2005. This Blu-ray version was minted from the same master as the HD DVD, and is also presented in 1080p/VC-1 video. 'Phantom's vibrant reds, oranges and midnight blues are really quite striking, and thankfully they're not pumped up to oblivion, leaving fleshtones natural. I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail there is to the transfer. From the fine textures of skin in close-up to the most minute costume design details, I was often blown away by how terrific the image looked. Depth is incredibly three-dimensional in just about every scene, so much so that I'd say there are select shots here that rival the best video on any Blu-ray release I've seen. Grain too, is minimal, with a nice and smooth film-like look that I've come to really savor from VC-1 encodes.
'Phantom of the Opera' on HD DVD featured a wonderful Dolby TrueHD track, which unfortunately is absent from this Blu-ray release. Though the included Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track here is still very fine, a 640kbps encode just can't compare to a lossy format like Dolby TrueHD. It is a real shame that, for whatever reason, Warner has not included the option here.
In any case, 'Phantom' still shines in Dolby Digital. There are a few highlight sequences in the film that just always sound terrific -- it is likely even mono could not dull the thrill of Christine's first trip through the underground canals to the lair of the Phantom, or the big chandelier crash that begins the third act. The impeccable vocal performances sound warm and true, with subtle variations in tone distinct (if not up to the clarity of Dolby TrueHD). Low bass is also strong, with serious deep frequencies that rival the best standard Dolby Digital tracks I've heard on either next-gen format.
Surrounds create a fairly effective soundfield, with nice pans between channels achieving a near-360-degree effect. The score and songs are the most magnificent -- when the signature theme song kicks in, the fullness of the rear channels is mighty indeed. Though 'Phantom' may not be the kind of film that one normally associates with home theater demo material, such moments are easily as impressive as any other you could crank up to wow the neighbors. Yes, the lack of Dolby TrueHD on Blu-ray is disappointing, but sometimes second best ain't that bad.
Another straight-from-standard DVD port, most -- but not all -- of the extras from the 2005 DVD release are included here. The supplements also aren't particularly detailed or illuminating, as the standard DVD release seemed a bit like a stop-gap release for fans while they waited for the inevitable double dip.
First up is the best extra, the 65-minute "Behind the Mask: The Story of the Phantom of the Opera" documentary. I may have found this one most interesting simply because it was less about the film itself, and more about its long journey to the screen. It also includes a 2004 interview with Andrew Lloyd Webber, making it the only must-watch on the disc for 'Phantom' fans.
Up next are three shorter movie making-of featurettes which, when combined, form a complete "The Making of the Phantom of the Opera" overview: "Origins and Casting of the Phantom of the Opera" (12 minutes); "Designing the Phantom of the Opera" (11 minutes) and "Supporting Cast and Recording the Album of the Phantom of the Opera" (17 minutes). All are self-explanatory and pretty good stuff, though the "Designing" segment was the most interesting to me. It showcases the extensive miniature work in the film, which I found a welcome respite from the tendency many filmmakers have these days to create everything with CGI. The "Recording the Album" bit is also fun, if only to hear how beautiful many of the vocal talent sounded, even without extensive production and studio trickery.
Rounding out the set is one additional song, "No One Would Listen," which is a pretty syrupy ballad sung by the Phantom. Can't say that I missed it much, but kudos to Warner for presenting here in full 1080p video -- it looks great. Also included are the film's theatrical trailer, and a cute "Cast & Crew Sing-A-Long" outtake, featuring tone-deaf renditions of the film's title song. Charming.
'Phantom of the Opera' is undoubtedly a handsomely mounted big-screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Weber stage classic, and had the film came out in the late '80s or early '90s, I'm sure it would have been a huge blockbuster. This Blu-ray release is very nice, particularly the transfer and the extras, which are identical to the HD DVD version. Unfortunately, there is no Dolby TrueHD track, and Warner's Blu-ray titles still lack basic next-gen functionality that have long been standard on their HD DVD counterparts. That puts this Blu-ray release slightly behind the earlier HD DVD in overall value, but it still is a solid recommend for fans of the film.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.