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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - Blu-ray Disc Review

Sweeney Todd (2007) movie poster Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Theatrical Release: December 21, 2007 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp (Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd), Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett), Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin), Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), Sacha Baron Cohen (Signor Adolfo Pirelli/David Connors), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony Hope), Laura Michelle Kelly (Lucy/Beggar Woman), Jayne Wisener (Johanna), Edward Sanders (Tobias "Toby" Ragg)

Songs: "No Place Like London", "The Worst Pies in London", "Poor Thing", "My Friends", "Green Finch and Linnet Bird", "Alms Alms", "Johanna (Parts 1 & 2)", "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir", "Pirelli's Entrance", "The Contest", "Wait", "Ladies in Their Sensitivities", "Pretty Women", "Epiphany", "A Little Priest", "Johanna (Act II)", "God, That's Good!", "By the Sea", "Not While I'm Around", "Toby's Finger (Searching, Part 1)", "Searching (Part 2)", "The Judge's Return", "Final Scene (Parts 1 & 2)"

Buy Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Amazon.com: Blu-ray Disc 2-Disc Special Edition DVD 1-Disc DVD


By Aaron Wallace

Among the magical toy shops, singing chipmunks, and family reunions that moviegoers were treated to last Christmas was an R-rated musical about a homicidal barber and cannibalism. How's that for a tiding of good joy? Or, for that matter, genre-bending? The unseasonable release date was appropriate for a film as unlikely and drenched in irony as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Based on Stephen Sondheim's Broadway classic, itself born of a centuries-old legend, the project has been on director Tim Burton's table longer than some of its cast members have been alive. At long last, the movie arrived in 2007 and was well worth the wait.

Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is a barber who is banished from London when the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) takes a liking to Barker's wife. Years later, a bitter and hardened Barker returns as Sweeney Todd, intent on reclaiming his family and having revenge on Turpin and his right-hand man, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). Once back in London, Todd finds that his former barbershop is now home to a meat pie restaurant operated by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), an eccentric woman who immediately befriends him with romantic ambitions. When Lovett gives him bad news about the fate of Benjamin Barker's wife, Todd begins to use his barbering skills for evil, slashing the throats of Englishmen seeking a close shave. The fresh supply of dead bodies is good business for Mrs. Lovett, ever in need of meat for her pies.

Unknowingly aiding the murderous partnership is Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), a love-struck young sailor who joined Todd in his return to London and discovered Todd's daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), held captive as Turpin's ward. Meanwhile, a young boy named Toby (Ed Sanders), employed by a rival barber (Sacha Baron Cohen), becomes a sort of faux son for Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. Together, Todd and his allies hatch a plan to free his daughter and deliver justice to her captors.

Brooding Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) looks out the window of the barbershop he's reclaimed from Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter, rear). Though they stand for the law, Beadle (Timothy Spall) and Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) are antagonists in this film.

As the premise suggests, the film is a fiercely dark drama, brooding from beginning to end. It opens with several minutes of blood streaming through a sewer, finally yielding to a stormy sky beneath which Sweeney Todd lambasts London as a vermin-filled black pit. Yet throughout, tongue is planted firmly in cheek. A merry upbeat tune plays even as the demon barber revels in his penchant for throat slashing. He sings an ode of friendship to his trusty razor blades. The characters' indifference to their heinous behavior is played to maximum effect, serving delicious irony to the audience in nearly every scene. So while the film is one of the bloodiest in recent memory, it's a bright red that reinforces the tension between the real and the absurd that lies at the crux of the story.

That application of a farcical tone to a story that is -- far from farce -- a gripping narrative of corruption, hatred, and revenge is the brilliance of Sweeney Todd. Original playwright, composer, and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director Tim Burton are masters of their respective crafts and both have a knack for the twisted. It's a match made in Heaven... or somewhere. Add Johnny Depp to that mix and it's a recipe guaranteed by its ingredients. Burton appears to have captured on film exactly the kind of story that Sondheim wanted to tell on the stage, a story that is far more cinematic in nature than theatrical. The narrative is much easier to digest here than in live performance and the careful balance of camera, light, music, and close-up that cinema allows produces constant suspense and giddy excitement. Burton has successfully adapted, rather than re-staged, a Broadway musical and yet somehow remained fiercely loyal to the source in both text and essence.

As Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp submits another performance for your consideration as his career best. The English accent invites initial comparisons to Captain Jack Sparrow but the vengeful demeanor that Depp so completely embodies as Todd soon sweeps away any remnants of the Caribbean. The star shows off quite a voice too, upstaging Len Cariou (Broadway's original Todd) with a rock-flavored vocal style that suits the music far better than expected. The same can't be said for Helena Bonham Carter, I'm afraid. Her subdued Mrs. Lovett works very well on film and in the acting department she's a delight, nailing every laugh. Carter's singing, however, is a far cry from that of Angela Lansbury, who originated the role in a performance worthy of her credentials. Carter struggles to hit the complicated notes. If her role was any less light-hearted, she'd have been in real trouble. As it is, she gets by with it but just barely.

Kazakhstan's number one barber (Sacha Baron Cohen) accepts Todd's hair-cutting challenge. Sweeney Todd admires his razor blade on a number of occasions, this being one of the prouder.

The supporting cast is fantastic both in their acting and singing. Of course one can't help but notice that many of them seem to be on loan from Harry Potter, three of the principal cast members having also starred in the most recent installment of that franchise. Alan Rickman, of Professor Snape fame, was apparently born to play Judge Turpin. Timothy Spall, starring here in one of two 2007 musicals in which he wasn't given a big singing part, is the perfect Beadle Banford as well, his slick smile positively stomach-turning. Jamie Campbell Bower and Ed Sanders are younger than any Anthony and Toby, respectively, that I've seen in a production of Sweeney Todd. They're also the best by a mile, and that includes the original. Even Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Borat, delights in his hilarious portrayal of a con artist barber named Pirelli. For what it's worth, Borat sing very nice.

The movie will forever be labeled a musical but in truth, it's more an operetta. The music here is not the showy, song-and-dance fare most commonly associated with the genre. With a paucity of spoken dialogue, music is merely a means of communication in the film. Because the singing almost never stops, there are no awkward moments of transition. Instead, just as with subtitles in a foreign language film, the viewer soon forgets that they're listening to song as opposed to speech and is simply lost in the remarkably clever lyrics. Sondheim's score is rich and intricate, always cognizant of what is going on in the scene, not only in terms of the story, but the physical movement as well.

One of the more elaborate numbers, "A Little Priest" captures the film's quintessence in one song. Another, "Epiphany", demonstrates just how scary scream-singing can be. "By the Sea" provides a needed break from the bleak aesthetics for a colorful and hilarious trip into Mrs. Lovett's imagination at just the right time. A few songs are omitted from the play, most notably show-opener "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd", which regrettably appears only in instrumental form. Each and every song that made the cut also makes an impression, though, perhaps excepting "Green Finch and Linnet Bird", the only stretch of film that comes anywhere close to boring.

While still committed to the just-beaten HD DVD format, DreamWorks Home Entertainment released Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street only to DVD as a single disc and a 2-Disc Special Edition in April 2008. Six months later, the film makes its Blu-ray Disc debut in the United States, following an earlier region-free release in the UK. I take a look at the hi-def disc's contents below.

Buy Sweeney Todd on Blu-ray Disc from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras Subtitled
Release Date: October 21, 2008
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99 (Reduced from $39.99)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Slim-line Blue Keepcase
Also available in Single-Disc DVD and 2-Disc Special Edition DVD

VIDEO and AUDIO

The new Blu-ray disc presents the film close to its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and in 1080p high definition. The video presentation is essentially perfect; the few minor problems that popped up on the DVD are not to be found here. Todd is a very dark and drab film, so for the most part, this doesn't provide the eye-popping experience that some other films might.
But when the action travels outside at night, the lamp light is cast beautifully on the streets of London. Likewise, when Mrs. Lovett's imagination wanders to a stroll down the beachside pier, the vibrancy of the bold colors is so arresting in high definition that you almost wish the entire movie had been made that way (but not really, of course). Needless to say, this is an excellent video presentation, even if you'll need to keep an open eye for those especially revealing shots that inspire that "ah, so this is Blu-ray" feeling.

Audio comes by way of a new lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround Sound track and it sounds fantastic. The sound is pure and satisfying, making it a great way to appreciate the amazing music on display in Sweeney Todd. Bass is strong and supportive and the front channels get a real workout. The rear channels are put to good use when needed for effect and even when just acting as back-up, they remain active throughout. Especially during the songs, I would have liked a little more from the back channels, as the sound from the front is so powerful as to take away from the back. I'm hard put to complain, though, so I won't.

Johnny Depp gets a lesson at the Tim Burton School of Barbering in the single-disc's lone extra, "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd." Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter make up one-third of the panel for the included November 2007 Sweeney Todd Press Conference. We get a brief photographic glimpse at Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd in "The Real History of the Demon Barber."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The Blu-ray Disc offers exactly the same bonus features as the 2-Disc Special Edition DVD -- nothing more, nothing less. The big difference here is that most of the bonuses are presented in glorious high definition, which makes all the difference in the world here.

First up is "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd" (26:05) (HD), a making-of featurette that focuses on cast members and key crew beyond just those included in the title.
The emphasis here is on singing and we not only hear Depp and Carter discuss the challenges they faced in having to sing on film for the first time but we even see them at work in the studio. This excellent piece borrows quite a bit from the HBO "First Look" special that aired during the film's theatrical run, which is good because I've already removed that from my DVR.

Next up is "Sweeney Todd Press Conference, November 2007" (19:41). It's what it sounds like: a taping of an actual press conference with a panel comprised of Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Richard D. Zanuck. Such things rarely make it to home video and the all-star lineup makes this especially impressive. Questions are presented in on-screen text. A notable one asks about Tim Burton, the Sweeney characters, and the final film in the Harry Potter franchise... it makes little sense and Burton's entirely irrelevant answer is even more confusing. Either some mistake was made in putting together the press conference or Burton chose to change the subject. That puzzling exchange is only one reason why this absolutely deserves a viewing.

"Sweeney is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber" (20:07) (HD) briefly documents the legend of Sweeney Todd that dates back centuries. Scholars of history, literature, and culture are on hand to trace the evolution of the tale and debate the likelihood of the character's actual existence in London long ago. Interesting comparisons are raised, among them Jack the Ripper (a role Depp played in From Hell), Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel. Though there's room for expansion, this effectively provides a rather comprehensive overview that is both informative and intriguing.

Who better to talk about Sondheim's Sweeney Todd than creator Stephen Sondheim? He speaks while pretty blue light seeps into his home. The real Fleet Street is witnessed in "Sweeney's London." Director Tim Burton speaks in front of fence and brick in "The Making of 'Sweeney Todd...'."

"Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd" (12:03) (HD) is yet another featurette, this one focusing on the music itself (rather than the singing covered by "Burton + Depp + Carter"). Stephen Sondheim himself sits down to share his philosophy on adapting stage musicals for film and his willingness to see liberties taken with his own widely revered score.
The stage production itself is all but neglected here; one wishes for more on the show. Nevertheless, this is another solid supplement for its brief runtime.

"Sweeney's London" (16:15) (HD) essentially picks up where "Sweeney is Alive" left off, looking at the socioeconomic conditions of London during the time that Sweeney Todd may have been barbering. The latter part returns to the question of whether the myth might have some basis in truth, lending very interesting credence to the idea while at the same time raising doubts.

"The Making of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (24:02) is a more conventional making-of documentary, though certainly on the shorter side. All the usual suspects are covered here, from casting to costumes to music. Naturally, there is some overlap but not as much as one might expect. Like "Burton + Depp + Todd", this borrows bits from HBO's Sweeney special. The pace here is brisk and the observations more general but it does provide a nice overview.

Given the illusion of having balcony seats, these two speakers in "Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition" are kind of like Statler and Waldorf, only not as old, cantankerous, or entertaining. Needed or not, subtitles translate the accented insight of set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo while "Designs for a Demon Barber" are observed. Tim Burton choreographs the blood in "A Bloody Business."

"Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition" (19:14) (HD) is only loosely related to Sweeney Todd. The famous French theater and horror style associated with it is discussed at some length by experts in the field. Eventually, the realistic nature of Sweeney's horror and the ironic humor that is coupled with it gets tied in with the traditions of the Grand Guignol. It's somewhat interesting but certainly tangential.

"Designs for a Demon Barber" (8:55) (HD) puts costume and set design in the spotlight, interviewing the relevant parties. A behind-the-scenes look at the wardrobe department, stills of the actors in various outfits, and concept art for the barber shop are among the more interesting things contained herein.

"A Bloody Business" (8:52) (HD) is an excellent featurette about the film's special effects, which of course gravitate around the need for blood. The process of making slit throats and dumped bodies look real is shown almost step by step and it is most fascinating to see.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are supposedly nervous but clearly casual in their Moviefone Unscripted episode. Tim Burton's Hitchcockian cameo in the middle of this dramatic scene just didn't really work, but it's wisely preserved in both The Razor's Refrain montage and the Photo Gallery. Blood splatters across the barbershop window in the main menu used for both discs.

"'Moviefone Unscripted' with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp" (11:36) presents a brief conversation in which the director and star ask each other questions submitted by Moviefone viewers.
Their discussion is friendly and lighthearted, the duo reflecting on many of their collaborations, not just Sweeney Todd. This is yet another bonus you'll definitely want to check out.

"The Razor's Refrain" (8:40) (HD) is a montage of film stills and production photos set to brief clips from a number of the movie's songs. Similarly, the Photo Gallery provides 51 images, though, here the viewer navigates with the remote control, a format considerably less preferable than the earlier moving montage.

Finally, the excellent theatrical trailer (2:32) (HD) is included for the sake of both posterity and hi-definition enjoyment, not to mention convincing friends and family to sit down for a viewing.

That's a robust menu of bonus features, most of them very good. The set suffers primarily from the absence of an audio commentary, insufficient coverage of the source Broadway musical, and additional publicity material (such as other trailers and TV spots). Had the studio wanted to go an extra mile, a more comprehensive production diary would have been a real treat for this movie in particular. That said, DreamWorks has given consumers tremendous incentive to purchase this Blu-ray release with some really first-rate supplements.

The main menu is nothing special. After a quick introductory run through the streets of London, smoke billows, clouds move, blood squirts, and lights flicker while an otherwise motionless view of Mrs. Lovett's shop fills the screen and a rather unmemorable portion of the score is looped. The various menu options and supplements are of course accessible within the main menu screen itself, the options sometimes framed inside an appropriate barber poll border. The main menu options are also accessible during playback without having to leave the movie, though the special features are not. Blu-ray Discs are generally pretty amiable in the menu department but such an outstanding movie and Blu-ray Disc should have inspired more effort on the menus.

The disc is labeled with Paramount's usual bland silver cover art and is packaged inside a standard slim-line, transparent blue keepcase. The downside to the Blu-ray release is that it doesn't come with the awesome razor blade-laden slipcover that the DVD sported. The only inserts in the case are an offer to save $10 on a DVD-to-Blu-ray upgrade for select Paramount/DreamWorks titles and a reminder that Blu-ray players may occasionally require firmware updates.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street excitedly prepares for a shave while singing of pretty women. The musical number "By the Sea" expands the film's dark palette to include some pleasant color.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a film as ingenious as it is atypical. Thrilling, funny, and exceedingly clever, the movie ranks among Tim Burton's very best. The new Blu-ray Disc release boasts an impressive, even if not entirely comprehensive, slate of bonus features. Stellar high definition video treatment and a lossless Dolby TrueHD audio track earn major points as well. Adding this to your Blu-ray collection is a no-brainer; it's sure to leave you quoting one of Sweeney's songs -- "God, that's good!"

Buy Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Amazon.com:
Blu-ray Disc / 2-Disc Special Edition DVD / 1-Disc DVD

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Reviewed October 16, 2008.



Text copyright 2008 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2007 DreamWorks Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008 DreamWorks Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. Screencaps from DVD version.