Tim Burton does a great service to the modern movie musical with Sweeney Todd, his utterly entertaining and playfully grim adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's legendary musical. Rather than tearing apart the original score and restoring it in bits and pieces like a highlight reel of sorts, Burton only makes a few snippets and keeps the general structure of a musical - sung interaction with minimal spoken dialogue - in tact. The music is as integral to the film as any adaptation of a stage production in years. It doesn't start and stop, but rather permeates the film in its entirety with few exceptions.
The film version is also aided by the quintessential gothic look and feel that Burton brings to nearly all his projects. He creates a grimy, exaggerated London and dresses his characters to the hilt, with paler than pale makeup and mangled looking hair. Johnny Depp's eerie Sweeney looks like something straight out of a dark fairytale. And yet this new version also realizes a vulnerable sense of pathos in the brooding character, a barber by trade who morphs into a throat slitting serial killer by film's end. Sweeney, once Benjamin Barker, is driven to rage after being wrongfully imprisoned by a lecherous judge (Alan Rickman) who lusts after his wife. When he returns from prison and discovers the fate of his lovely spouse and their young daughter, he swears he will have his vengeance on those who wronged him. He teams up with a lonely piemaker named Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who owns a shop beneath his old apartment. Together they develop a smoothly run business together in which Sweeney slits the throats of men who will not be missed and Mrs. Lovett disposes of the bodies by baking them into her world famous meat pies.
Depp is fabulous in the title role, combining his rich talent for creating unique and fully realized characters with a soulful rock & roll croon. It's as modern and electric a reading of Todd that's probably ever been seen. The same can be said for Helena Bonham Carter whose sprightly voice at first seems too small, but grows into an instrument of intoxicating character. She imbues the role with something that is both charming and desperate, a more nuanced weirdness than the brassy comedic quality Mrs. Lovett possessed on stage in iconic performances by Angela Lansbury and Patti Lupone. Together they're a deeply strange and oddly likable screen couple who both share a dark broken soul. And as bloody and ruthless as the film becomes, there is still something darkly funny about the scenario that allows Burton and Co. to ping pong between gruesome laughs ("A Little Priest") and small tragedies ("Not While I'm Around"). It's a great piece of filmmaking that has both a creative pedigree and a true style about it. It's smart and boldly original without crushing the mold of commerciality too bluntly. There's hope that this sick little twist may yet become a box office hit and subversive potential of a toe tapping, serial killer showstopper filling American screens is a juicy proposition in its own right.