Thank God for Gothic Expressionism. Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd is a welcome corrective to Hollywood's recent spate of song-and-dance movies from biopics to film-to-Broadway-to-film remakes, darker than eyeliner, bloodier than a Slayer concert, and with almost no saccharine in sight.
Sweeney Todd is Burton's best movie in nearly a decade, and, along with Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas it's one of the best movie musicals of recent years. He's practically the new Vincente Minnelli: his last three movies, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, and Sweeney Todd, have all been musicals. Burton's a director who has spent his career meditating on a few things, all of which converge on Halloween: death, blood, darkness, the limits of sanity, and bringing legend to life. Generally, the more of those themes he can fit into a movie, the more successful he's been, and they're all in this one. Indeed, Sweeney Todd wraps together a number of threads in Burton's career, marrying the cold Victorian England of Corpse Bride to the grey palette and voluptuous beauty of Sleepy Hollow, and marrying onscreen his two favorite actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who have each appeared in at least five of his films.
In fact, the whole film looks a bit like a mishmash of things we've seen before -- Depp first appears aboard a ship speaking an accent that sounds like a sober Jack Sparrow, with hair like the Bride of Frankenstein, makes blood gush like in Kill Bill, and is forcefully romanced by Helena Bonham Carter like in Corpse Bride, while wearing pancake makeup like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the whole thing is a staging of a 28-year old musical version of a 150-year old urban legend. So while it's nowhere near as novel as Burton's stunning early-career movies, it's satisfying nonetheless, as repertory from a director who knows his strengths.
The best scenes are the best songs: Bonham Carter's tour de force, "The Worst Pies in London," and duets like "My Friends" and "Pretty Girls." As in Nightmare Before Christmas, the songs are better integrated into the screenplay than in typical Hollywood stage readings -- the actors sing in the same register as they speak, and move fairly easily from the dialogue bridges to sung setpieces. The traditional knock against Burton is that he's better at atmosphere than at pacing, but because the pre-existing songs frame the story, Burton is able to revel in the comfort of creating the backdrop, as the New York Times reported, "not Victorian London but horror-movie London." As such, it feels much more like a backlot than a true city, claustrophobic, twisted and stylized like all Burton's work, gorgeously surreal.
Unlike many musicals (but like much Sondheim), Sweeney Todd is rather operatic in its emotional arc, grisly, grim, and intense. Even though it's very funny in parts, it's not a comedy. As a result, it's a bit hard to pigeonhole by genre, which along with its lack of an inspirational message may hurt it at the box office. On the other hand, it was nominated for Golden Globes before it was even released, so it is likely to hang around theaters for a while, even if it doesn't do blockbuster sales. Given the gore, it won't be for everyone, but it's very good for what it is. With any luck, the audience it deserves will find it.