Considering how poorly Alice In Wonderland played with me, it was interesting to me to come across this piece I wrote about Tim Burton and Johnny Depp’s previous collaboration. I really liked it! Maybe it’s that whole Jay-Z/Talib Kweli dumbing-down-the-raps argument: You can be as talented as anything, but the dumber and more obvious you make your stuff, the easier it is to make the big bucks. I don’t know. If a POS like Alice In Wonderland means that Burton gets to take more risks now, then it was worth doing. But if it signifies a shift in the wrong direction, that’s another issue. Anyway, check this out:
This evening, MoMA is screening one of Tim Burton’s most unusual and underrated films. Burton’s adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street was released in the winter of 2007. It did decent business and received generally celebratory reviews, but 2007 was a very competitive year for terrific films so Sweeney Todd still feels somewhat overlooked.
Burton’s last ten years of live-action films have seen him aggressively focused on interpreting other people’s creations, between 2001’s Planet Of The Apes, 2003’s Big Fish (based on a novel), 2005’s Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, and the upcoming Alice In Wonderland. (Only 2005’s Corpse Bride featured original Burton characters.) Burton’s envisioning of Sweeney Todd, however, stands apart from those other live-action adaptations: It’s a musical, first and most obviously, but a little less apparent, it’s a more adult kind of upsetting, an arguably encouraging turn into a different kind of darkness than Burton usually explores.
A Tim Burton movie usually features morbid, death-fixated characters, but usually in a more upbeat, whimsical frame of mind. Characters can be mutilated or even murdered, but not necessarily permanently. They’re either transformed by death into something manageable, or they even revel in it. Death in a typical Burton movie, somehow, is all in fun. Not so in Sweeney Todd. The blood flows in rivers, loosed by razors or other slashing implements. There’s nothing whimsical about throats being cut, no matter how much singing is going on around it. Victims of murder in Sweeney Todd don’t go to an upbeat place; they don’t become ghosts or goblins. They’re turned into meat pies and sold to a hungry, unsuspecting consumer base.
Johnny Depp plays the title character, and, consistent with all of his films with Burton, he’s the most sympathetic character in the movie. I’ve heard people knock on Depp’s singing voice in this movie but it’s perfectly serviceable at worst, and generally entirely effective. I like the idea that Sweeney Todd’s singing voice is just a little tentative and unprofessional – why would anyone expect a vengeance- obsessed serial killer to have a booming singing voice? Depp’s voice here adds to his appeal, and he’s a guy who certainly has no trouble engendering audience appeal in the first place. He’s certainly more likeable than his primary nemeses, the great Alan Rickman as the skeezy Judge Turpin, the great Timothy Spall as Turpin’s badger-like sidekick Beadle, and the great Sascha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, the snake oil salesman who tries to steal Sweeney Todd’s thunder and attempts to blackmail him. (There’s a lot of greatness in this cast.)
Depp’s Sweeney Todd is also more likeable than his partner-in-crime, the garish and scheming Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter), who at least gets a couple moments of sympathy but ultimately commits manipulations so horrible that Sweeney Todd, for all his monstrousness, is restored to his initial status as a tragic hero by story’s end. Interestingly, Depp as Sweeney Todd is also more likable than the pair of young lovers, Anthony and Johanna, who are caught up in the horrific conflict between Turpin and Todd. These two characters, who would typically be the audience surrogates in any other film, are disturbingly childlike and overwhelmingly vulnerable – they’re like ladybugs flitting around in a crow’s nest.
Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd deserves reconsideration. It’s a polished, mature film, with beautiful, perfectly-pitched cinematography and production design that looks etched in charcoal. As a lifelong Tim Burton fan, I wonder where it will stand in his evolution as a filmmaker – his choice of Alice In Wonderland feels like a regression, but then again, those promotional pictures of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter look drastically less cuddly and more sinister than Disney’s rendition or even John Tenniel’s original spooky illustrations. We’ll see about that one, but in the meantime, you can see Sweeney Todd tonight at MoMa. Highly recommended.
Also highly recommended is my Twitter feed: @jonnyabomb