I never was one to include Tim Burton among the truly "great" directors of our times. The man can be maddeningly erratic, going from Ed Wood and Big Fish to Mars Attacks and Planet of the Apes. But when he's good, he's really good.
From the start, I knew that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street would be the perfect material for his gothic sensibilities. Add Johnny Depp, easily the finest American actor under 50, and you have a highly satisfying cinematic experience.
Ironically, my biggest hesitation regarding the movie had nothing to do with Burton or Depp, but rather with Stephen Sondheim, the composer. Unlike most of the boorish clods bashing this movie on messageboards far and wide, I have no problem with musicals. I happen to love them. It's just that, when it comes to musicals, I'll take Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, et al over Sondheim and his post-modern ilk anyday. I just don't find him melodic, and with the exception of the stirring "Joanna", there's no song I really took away with me from the theater. I know I'll catch heat for this, but when it comes to horror musicals, I think I may ever-so-slightly prefer Joel Schumacher's adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera.
OK, now that I got that piece of blasphemy out of the way, let's talk about what I did like. Burton has gotten so good at setting the kind of tone this movie needs that its positively a joy to watch unfold. This is a fully realized other-dimensional version of early Victorian England. And when you compare this film to a similarly-toned work like Sleepy Hollow (which I also love), you can really observe how far he's come as a filmmaker over the years.
Depp, as always, is excellent. While I wouldn't say he can sing, he can at least carry a tune--his acting takes him the rest of the way. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the flick's true scene-stealer, Timothy Spall (pictured), a true pro who adds so much nuance and subtlety to the role of the Beadle, which on paper could have been just another two-dimensional flunky. Sacha Baron Cohen--a.k.a. Borat--is perfectly cast as the flamboyant Pirelli, who gets his just desserts in the film's first shocking moment of bloodshed.
Speaking of which, in case you've been living under a rock, I should warn you there is a copious amount of plasma shed in this motion picture. It's all very stylized, and the blood is a Dawn-of-the-Dead shade of crayon red, but even still--we're talking about enough crimson to fill a blood bank. Kudos to Burton for not skimping on what made this musical so memorable in the first place.
If you love horror and musicals like I do, then this movie is a lot of fun. Even if musicals have never been your thing, at least try to have an open mind, especially if you enjoy Burton's work. Sweeney Todd has always had a very polarizing effect on audiences, and it's been no different this time. Musical fans have been turned off by the gore, and horror fans have been turned off by the singing. It's quite an enigmatic work in that regard. Yet beyond genre, there are really only two kinds of movies: good and bad. And Sweeney Todd falls into the first category.