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Review: Sweeney Todd Is a Bloody Mess of a Musical

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is not, contrary to everything you’ve read elsewhere, a great movie. It’s not even a very good movie. Hell, if it wasn’t for the bravura of its director, Tim Burton, or the charisma of its star, Johnny Depp, it wouldn’t even be a good movie. From start to finish, I found myself disappointed that I chose to screen this Broadway musical adaptation over I Am Legend (which screened at the same time here in LA) and even more disappointed in Burton, whose work has always inspired me. If you’re a Burton fan, too, then you’ll know what I mean when I say Sweeney Todd is almost as bad as his Planet of the Apes remake. In many ways, Planet is better, in fact, since I at least liked a few of the characters in it.

Let me explain my “from start to finish” summary dismissal, since it’s easy to imagine I mean from the first scene to the finish. No, I mean from the credits to the finish. Burton is one of the most imaginative directors Hollywood has ever known, and has constantly shown an ability to marry special effects, generally the most traditional sort, to his mad visions like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, or Sleepy Hollow. But with Sweeney Todd, he’s taken his newfound affinity for CGI, a blight on his style that almost sank Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and let sub-par visual effects constantly distract audiences from his magic making. The credits, during which we follow dripping blood from the titular character’s barber shop into London’s sewers, is so poorly digitally animated that I found myself wondering why Pixar movies looked more realistic. Even worse, the poor effects persist; every single wide shot of London is so obviously animated, right down to listless smoke, that I wanted to hunt Burton down and demand he go back to using his endearing models.

Of course, none of this tells you what the movie is about, which, it turns out, is very little besides a barber who, after being framed for a crime and sentenced to jail, returns to London to exact revenge on the dishonest judge (Alan Rickman) who, if what he did to Todd isn’t enough, publicly raped Todd’s wife and then adopted Todd’s infant daughter. Now, I’m not suggesting vengeance alone does not a story make, but the vengeance should lead to something. At least perhaps a revelation. Here, events quickly conspire to rob Todd of his vengeance so, without any way to justly sate his newfound bloodlust, he turns to randomly killing the city’s snobbish affluent. See, he transfers his need for vengeance against a wealthy judge to the wealthy indifferent. Except his bloodlust grows and grows and he quickly seems willing to kill anybody, including children and innocent homeless people. Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, a meat-pie maker, who allies with Todd and uses his dead to turn out, you guessed it, lovely meat pies; except, instead of being a sympathetic conscience, she celebrates his murders and is even willing to kill an adopted son of sorts to protect Todd. Consequently, the only characters left to root for are a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) and his love, Todd’s grown-up daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) – except they’re barely in the movie! They’re also, interestingly enough, the only ones who can sing in it. Neither Depp or Bonham Carter can, or at least not to any degree worth entertaining oneself with.

As the movie wraps up, just about every despicable character we’ve been told we should root for becomes even more despicable. It turns out, Sweeney Todd is about characters you’re supposed to hate. I’m not sure what’s so redeemable about it either, since even the music lacks any real fun or energy. For once, I think I stand alone against the masses, rather than somewhere in the middle. Like Planet of the Apes, I’m just going to pretend this Burton movie never happened.

Grade: C-

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