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After years spent in prison for crimes he did not commit, Benjamin Barker returns to London under the alias of Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp). Todd arrives to find his wife dead and daughter held captive by the evil Judge (Alan Rickman) that sent him up the river in the first place. Todd opens a barbershop above Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) Meat Pie Shop, and begins to plot his murderous revenge. With the help of Mrs. Lovett, who uses the bodies of newly slashed victims in her vile pies, Todd takes aim at the Judge, who means to marry his adopted daughter.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition
Tim Burton has spent the last decade plus churning out entertaining but ultimately shallow and disappointing features. Following the success his two Batman films major studios got the silly idea in their heads that Burton was some kind of action director, and after the implosion of his epic Superman project Mr. Pale Face was given the reigns to a misbegotten Planet of the Apes remake. Though the film wasn’t quite as bad as some would have you believe (it did look pretty sharp), its negative reception appeared to some as a sizable nail in the director’s tomb. Big Fish represented a different direction for the impossibly gothic director, but the film lacks emotional weight, and depends too fiercely on a typically warm performance from actor Ewan McGregor. Burton’s 2005 double shot, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride, were a massive disappointment. Both films were surprisingly obnoxious and bland mimicry of the director’s previous achievements.

I have a large measure of affection for the Hammer House of Horror take on the Sleepy Hallow legend that Burton tackled in 1999, even though I readily recognize that the film doesn’t hold the skewed emotional resonance of Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, nor the original visual impact of Beetlejuice. Burton’s return to quirky-Goth and musicals with Sweeny Todd wasn’t something that sounded particularly challenging for the director on paper, especially considering it would be an adaptation of an already successful stage play (not to mention the fact that the film only came together after another Burton production fell apart).

What Burton achieves with Sweeney Todd is very similar to what he achieved with Sleepy Hallow—an energetic homage to Hammer Horror, Mario Bava, and Roger Corman filmed with few tones beyond black, white and red. Burton doesn’t take the effect to the extremes he did on Sleepy Hallow, and allows himself to take on more modern film effects, but he maintains the staged feel. Burton also visually quotes himself throughout the movie, from the attic and basement sets of Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hallow) to the costumes and hairstyles of   Batman Returns, and touches of Beetlejuice-ian mirth. Critically this type of super-narcissistic behaviour is often suspect, and unintentionally funny (see: Brian DePalma and Dario Argento), but the fact that the material is almost jokingly pre-made for Burton’s sensibilities creates a shaky balance.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition
Sweeney Todd succeeds on more on an emotional level then any Tim Burton film since Ed Wood (folks often forget Martin Landau won a richly deserved Oscar for his work as an aging Bela Lugosi), without sacrificing too much of the dark humour that makes the director’s best films so memorable. The mix of humour, horror and melodrama is a hard sell, and until I saw the movie I really wasn’t sure that Burton was the man for this job.

Despite Burton’s reputation for dark motion pictures, Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hallow[i] are Buton’s only particularly bloody films. The violence here is somewhat cartoony in the way [i]Hollow’s was, and the blood itself is too bright to be taken too seriously, but the fetishistic way in which Depp welds his knives and the sentiment behind the violence makes Sweeny Todd the darkest film in Burton’s career. The various unsubtle jabs at political subtext (eat the rich) were part of the original myth, but any political subtext in a Tim Burton film (beyond the dumpy heavy handedness of Planet of the Apes) is a cause for minor celebration.

It’s just about impossible act subtly while singing, but this highly adept cast manages several moments of genuine drama amongst the booming harmonics and histrionics. The weak link is Jamie Campbell Bower, though I blame the character’s flatness more on the writing then on Bower’s pretty-face portrayal. Calling the film a ‘musical’ is almost a misnomer—its’ practically a full-on opera, meaning that folks unhappy with the idea of watching a singing murderer will probably remain unhappy throughout the entire runtime. There are very few plot points or character emotions expressed without song, and the few that aren’t are sort of jarring.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition

Video


The news of Paramount’s dumping of the HD DVD format was a bummer. I was waiting for two HD releases, and now I’ll have to wait for an as yet unmentioned Blu-ray release for both of them. One of those films was pretty obviously Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is, like all Tim Burton’s films, a visually sumptuous piece, and the sharp, almost hand-drawn look really lends itself to high definition.

The majority of the film is dark and almost colourless, and this standard definition disc does a fine job of reproducing the deep blacks and detailed, high contrast whites. The film’s more colourful scenes (mostly flashbacks and dream sequences) are more hit and miss. Reds look fabulous during the brighter scenes, but displays quite a bit of noise during the deep dark sequences of the finale. Ms. Lovett’s fantasy is rather spectacular and clean, but some of the greens and ambers are grainy and lose definition.

Audio


It’s a musical, the music better sound good. Thankfully this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is lush and full of life. The delicate balance between music and sound effects is spot on, the LFE booms without unnecessary vibration, and every note in the amateur singers’ spectrum is equally represented. Sweeney Todd is one of only two films in Tim Burton’s catalogue that wasn’t scored by Danny Elfman (the other is Ed Wood). No one can blame Elfman for not wanting to transcribe someone else’s successful score though, and Stephen Sondheim’s additions sound rather Elfman-esque anyway. The soundtrack really shines in the rear channels, which are actually augmented with their own instruments in parts, rather then the usual echo track.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition

Extras


Disc one is adorned with a single featurette called ‘Burton + Depp + Cater = Todd’, which also happens to be the only extra on the single disc collection. This is a sort of meaty and not too placating behind the scenes bit that should satisfy those not thoroughly interested in extra features. More or less everything here can be found in greater detail elsewhere on disc two, so those more interested in the behind the scenes process and the historical history of Sweeney Todd might want to skip this twenty-six minute piece all together in favour of disc two.

The disc two extras begin with a 2007 press conference featuring Burton and all the major actors. In the absence of a commentary track this interview segment gives us a decent glimpse into the deeper working process (besides, anyone that’s ever heard a Burton commentary track will know that we aren’t really missing anything). The twenty-minute feature is very amusing and far more informative than the usually press conference.

‘Sweeney is Alive’ is a twenty-minute look at the Sweeney myth and its various incarnations. The general consensus seems to be that there was no real Sweeney Todd in London’s history, and that the story is an amalgamation of various factual killers and old wives tales. The story’s popularity spiked when it was adapted into a ‘Penny Dreadful’ novella during the reign of real serial killer Jack the Ripper. The play version and an early film version are also covered here, though various B-horror versions (like Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers) are not mentioned. There is a feature length documentary in here somewhere.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition
‘Musical Mayhem’ is a more specific look at Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical from which Burton’s film was adapted. Sondheim (the man behind West Side Story, by the way) himself is interviewed, along with various other members of the original and theatrical productions. This is a good place to pause and acknowledge the spectacular originality of a Grand Guignol horror musical. The twelve minute featurette chronicles the musical’s history, Burton’s history, and possibly most importantly, the adaptation process. I have basically zero knowledge of the original Tony winning stage version of the killer barber tale, but internet research tells us that there was a lot of adaptation required to cram three plus hours of musical into two hours of movie. From what I’m able to glean the biggest sacrifice was the relationship between Todd’s daughter and her would-be suitor, which I see as a good thing. Even as Burton and screenwriter John Logan leave it there’s a little too much of these rather bland characters.

‘Sweeney’s London’ is a look at the history of London during the start of the Sweeny Todd legend. Though Burton’s film does not take place in this particularly horrifying chapter in London’s history (actually it doesn’t take place in any real timeframe), the inclusion of this featurette is a welcome one. The narrator mixes the ‘facts’ of the fictional Todd’s life and the facts of life on the bloody and polluted streets of early 19th century, and period appropriate art and maps are mixed with expert commentaries. I don’t see the purpose of separating this 16-minute featurette from ‘Sweeney is Alive’, but it’s still a nice dash of history lesson.

‘The Making of Sweeney Todd’ starts as a total fluff piece, filled out with the usual ‘all audience’ friendly clips, and back patting interviews (“He’s amazing”, “She’s amazing”, etc.). The graphicness of the violence isn’t the only thing avoided, the musical aspects are slighted a bit, just as they were in the film’s initial trailers. This bit likely played on HBO or something between full frame movies, and includes several bits from the longer and better featurettes.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition
‘Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition’ is a perfectly pleasant featurette all about the uber-graphic and ever popular play style that Burton’s film and Sondheim’s stage musical reference regularly. The piece briefly covers the basic history of the violent and often amoral stage productions, Sweeney Todd’s place within the tradition, and features a few minutes of recent Grand Guignol revivals (pretty cheesy). Like the ‘Sweeney is Alive’ featurette, this one feels like a mere taste of a bigger and better documentary, only running about nineteen minutes.

‘Designs for a Demon Barber’ is a closer look at Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo’s Academy Award winning art design, the set design, and Colleen Atwood’s Academy Award nominated costume design. The featurette is told with interviews (subtitled to cover the accents), on-set footage, film footage and production artwork. There is some discussion of inspiration, but surprisingly no talk of Burton and company’s self-quotation. Bits of this nine-minute featurette can be seen in ‘The Making of Sweeney Todd’.

‘A Bloody Business’ covers the film’s many juicy gore effects. The behind the scenes footage, narrated by the effects supervisor, is pretty thorough for another nine-minute runtime, covering the whole throat chopping process. The sheer volume of fake blood and set plastic wrap (including the camera) is very amusing. This is a probably a good place to mention that my research tells me that Sweeney Todd was slightly cut for its American release. I’m not sure on what specifically was cut, but I know this DVD is not the ‘unrated’ version, which may be a reason to wait for the eventual Blu-ray release.

‘Moviefone Unscripted’ is another fluff piece made to sell the film. Burton and Depp sort of interview each other while taking E-Mail questions from Moviefone web surfers. The participants are both charming as all hell, so what could’ve been a totally lame bit is only kind of awkward. It’s eleven minutes.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street: Special Edition
‘The Razor’s Refrain’ is a series of stills from the film set to pieces of each of the film’s major songs, running 8:30. This is followed by a standard flip-through gallery of behind the scenes photos and design concepts. Everything ties up with the original theatrical trailer.

Overall


Sweeney Todd is not Tim Burton’s greatest masterpiece, but it is his most solid film in a decade. The film is entirely entertaining, fully engrossing, and it tickles the senses without calling ridiculous amounts of attention to itself. It’s also the kind of film that will likely grow on even lukewarm viewers over time. This two disc special edition features some great extras, but just about every one of them feels somewhat truncated. I have a slight inkling that a more fully packed Blu-ray disc might be on the unseen horizon, but make no promises.


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