So It's Come to This: A pre-release movie review.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Due warning: I've never seen the musical performed, nor even listened to the whole of the thing as a single work. But I know the story. And I know my Tim Burton.

When I was 10, Tim Burton was the greatest director in the world. I loved Pee-wee's Big Adventure. I nearly had Beetlejuice memorized. I still have a soft spot for his two Batman movies; plain vanilla Batman depicted the characters with broad, pulpy fervor, and blew up their adventures and surroundings to operatic proportions, while Batman Returns mixed and matched human grotesqueries with silent film references and icy locales, kneading an iconography of apartness into a blockbuster superhero sequel.

As you can tell, my reaction to those two pictures are tied to what makes Burton a scattershot, sometimes tiresome filmmaker; his primary talent is that of marshalling production designers and art directors and makeup and the like into a recognizable, modestly mutable Tim Burton visual brand, while marshalling properly large performances from his actors and dripping his favored motifs -- damaging fathers, introspective loners, irregular flesh -- into whatever story mix he's presented with, occasionally built up from his own stock.

His camera serves to keep his vistas in focus. He can put together some attractive scenes, but his visual storytelling is fundamentally conservative and unadorned. His style isn't particularly substantive; rather, it glistens what it touches in a distinct manner, sometimes to the benefit of the whole, like with those Batman movies.

But the aimless indulgence of Mars Attacks! is another natural result, or the light-as-air action pageantry of Sleepy Hollow, or the simple, grinding boredom of Planet of the Apes. Even on the occasions where he sorta dials down the style, he's wound up with both the character-focused insight of Ed Wood, and the dreadful, sticky-sentimental sub-Gilliam wonder-of-fantasy bilge of Big Fish. He's supposed to have once quipped "I wouldn't know a good script if it bit me in the face," and I believe that as truth.

So I was a little uncertain about how this one might turn out, a film adaptation of the famed Stephen Sondheim musical about the killer barber and the woman who bakes the departed into awesome pies, the self-destructive drive of revenge powering the machine of capital until the mere humans at the controls are all used up. As it is, it's probably Burton's strongest film in a decade, in that the Tim Burton style turns out to be pretty simpatico with Sondheim's music & lyrics. It's still not a great film, nor even a great fit, but there is still something to the style mix at hand.

And believe me, the Tim Burton style is on full display in this one, and in its most familiar form. Frequent Burton costume designer Colleen Atwood teams with famed production designer Dante Ferretti and regular Martin Scorsese set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo for plenty of looming structures and whimsical/foreboding items and leather & lace and cake frosting grot, while music video and Pirates of the Caribbean vet Dariusz Wolski shoots to capture just the right pale daylight, inky shadows and chalky flesh tones necessary for that all-important 'dark' storybook texture. Indeed, Tim Burton's crew may have created the most Tim Burtonest display yet. I dare say if you so much as think 'Tim Burton,' this is the kind of look that mists into being.

There's even one of those traditional Tim Burton opening credits tracking shots, but it's a regrettably shitty one, following a stream of blood through the body disposal mechanisms of Mrs. Lovett's, complete with chintzy CGI recreations of actual sets - it's like the sort of thing you'd pull out of your pre-production work product for the Oscar show, not a good way of starting the film. Also note the absence of lyrics for The Ballad of Sweeney Todd; that and the entire Company aspect of the show are gone, totally.

Yet, it does level out. I'm in no position to appreciate the nuances of this film's vocal interpretations, but I can say that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter don't do much to impede the delivery of the material. Granted, Depp lapses into a sort of Top 40 rock radio histrionic style for the stronger bits, while Carter has some trouble in keeping her words clear while coping with the meter of The Worst Pies in London, but I didn't find anyone to be disastrously bad. Indeed, their slightly less polished performances match up well with those stylized 'ratty' costumes and flawlessly 'messy' hairdos of the Tim Burton approach (and Carter's cleavage probably deserves its own cast listing), while still keeping much of the beauty and wit of Sondheim's work at the fore. It's possible that both of them would totally die on stage, but this is not the stage.

The rest of the cast is fine; I liked the clever stunt casting of Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, in that his 'act' allows him to ham it up in the manner of one of his own characters, while his later confrontation with Sweeny Todd plays neatly off of the actor's reluctance to break character. Alan Rickman is also good fun, bringing a touch of pathetic pathos to Judge Turpin, although he's kept wholly away from singing, save for Pretty Women and its Reprise. I believe Ed Sanders, Jamie Campbell Bowers and Jayne Wisener come from the stage, and they sounded fine enough to me as Toby, Anthony and Johanna, respectively.

Of course, that leads us into maybe the core problem with this film version - it's been cut by about an hour total, and I can only presume that Anthony and Johanna took the heaviest snips, since Bowers and Wisener really don't have all that much to do. To be exact, they go through all of the necessary young love motions, but they more or less vanish about halfway through until they're needed for the climax, and their relationship carries no weight at all.

I don't know, maybe that's an aspect of the original show too, but in this movie they function as nothing more than an innocent counterpoint to Sweeney's and Mrs. Lovett's 'mature' dance of crossed signals and mutual exploitation. Ok on its own, but it does raise the question of why all that space is expended on them toward the front of the thing. It could just be a nod to storytelling convention, and I am aware that the Sondheim show contains a self-evident 'storytelling' construct, but that's also mostly absent from his version, save for Pirelli's performing and Toby's calls to various crowds. Burton instead constructs the film as a straight-ahead thriller, which I think leaves it more liable to be affected by unbalanced character work.

As expected, Burton's visual storytelling is mostly staid, outside of capturing those fine designs in attractive ways. It might be that overwhelming decoration that persuades him to sometimes go extra-big with dramatic moments - you'll get to know the scope of the city very well what with all the pull-backs from Sweeney's window, and Epiphany culminates with a full-blown movie musical cheese orgasm of Johnny Depp falling to his knees and waving his arms around while looking upward into the overhead camera, although Burton quickly undercuts the moment - if Sondheim looked to storytelling, Burton looks more literally at madness and fantasy as ongoing works of personal fiction.

He does know how to transform something like By the Sea into a crowd-pleasing comedy set piece through blunt contrasts in performance and costume, but just as often he'll have A Little Priest, where he leans on simple back-and-forth cuts to match what the characters are singing about. He certainly grasps the Grand Guignol aspects of the story, loading up on the gaping neck wounds and spurting blood. Give and take.

All that said, the core relationship between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett does come through with some effect, and the broad themes of the work are left whole. Oddly, Burton's adaptation retains a little more closing light - while the musical 'ends' (before the final statement of the Company) in madness being passed on, the faults of some being passed on to others so as to keep the machine of industry cranking, Burton shaves the story a little closer, leaving open a bit of extra hope that the young might struggle above the sins of their parents and guardians to separate themselves from the world of murder, if necessarily through the act of murder.

Hmmm, dark but not too cynical. Smart but not too complex. Seems about right for Tim Burton. This time, the mix serves him better than his average.