I'll confess that I know little of the cult-favorite Stephen Sondheim musical on which Sweeney Todd, the latest collaboration between director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp, is based. There's enough grim wit and conceptual novelty here to believe that Sweeney Todd is great Broadway, but, regardless, Burton hasn't fashioned this material into much of a movie, and the biggest problem seems to be the insistence on following the success of Chicago, Dreamgirls, and Hairspray and sticking to the material's musical roots.
The vocals during Sweeney Todd's musical numbers, particularly those of corpse-bride female lead Helena Bonham Carter — who sings quickly in a weak but not uninteresting voice — are drowned out by the music itself, making it hard to catch the words. These scenes are further hurt by the general lack of wit in Burton's direction of the musical numbers, which feel dutiful. Rather than rocketing the story into a more intense or nuttier or more magical dimension, the music in this Sweeney Todd just gets in the way of the story.
The tale concerns a London barber, Benjamin Barker (Depp), who is sent to prison on false charges by evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who wants to get his claws on Barker's beautiful young wife and infant daughter. Barker returns to London 15 years later using the name Sweeney Todd to seek revenge, partnering with grizzly pie-maker Ms. Lovett (Bonham Carter), whose meat-stuffed pastries are dependant on the stray-cat population around her Fleet Street shop.
Todd and Lovett's shared misanthropy manifests itself in a symbiotic relationship: He channels his rage into slitting throats at his upstairs barber shop; she uses his victims to spruce up her pies, which suddenly become quite popular.
The implication is that people eat each other every day — why should Todd or Lovett fight that natural fact? I'm not sure if the Broadway version was sincere about its misanthropy or nihilism, but Burton doesn't make much of this subtext.
The story and setting are interesting, and the casting is sound, but, once again, Burton proves to be less a filmmaker than an art director. Likewise, Depp plays another of the dark, damaged, non-verbal men Burton has cast him as before, a more malevolent descendant of Edward Scissorhands and Willy Wonka.
The film's finest moment comes with a fantasy sequence envisioned by Lovett in which the two ghouls leave dark, dank London for a sunny vacation by the sea. What's particularly funny here is that, even in Lovett's fantasy world, Todd is dour and reluctant. At the altar in Lovett's imaginary wedding, she can't see Todd saying "I do." He nods brusquely at the minister instead.
This bright sequence is a visual vacation for the audience as well. Stuck back in dreary London town, Burton's Grand Guignol isn't quite as interesting. Blood gushes when Sweeney Todd draws his blade. It doesn't feel real and isn't meant to. Instead, these bright-red geysers are a candy-colored design element meant to stand out against the drab backgrounds of brown, gray, and white. But, rather than creepy pop art, Burton's bloodletting quickly morphs into a dull, repetitive spray. Like the movie itself, it's an idea mostly devoid of feeling or effect.