Adapting a musical into a movie is always a tricky task because a live musical is three dimensional while a movie screen is flat. And live performers can command our attention while just standing still and singing in a way that characters doing the same thing in a movie can’t. To compensate for this, movie musicals break out complex routines, showcase deep street scenes and odd camera angles and Tim Burton reaches into that bag of tricks for Sweeney Todd. The camera flashes through the streets of London, blood sprays at the lens and complicated choreography unnecessarily fills the musical numbers in order to distract the audience from the flatness of the screen and the lead actors’ lack of vocal range.
Johnny Depp is miscast as Sweeney Todd, a raging embittered incarnation of pain, loss and vengeance, yet he successfully delivers a melancholy subdued take on the killer. It’s the songs where Depp falters the most. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd never had to be sung well, the off key performances were as much a part of its mimicking of the penny dreadful as the minimalist sets, but Todd’s role requires range and power, both of which Depp lacks. His songs are bitter and menacing but lack the grandeur that made Todd more than a man but a human Frankenstein, a monster born out of loss and despair.
Yet it is Helena Bonham Carter who is most miscast, a fishwife role transformed into a ragdoll Gothic princess, fragile and poisonous. It is a depiction Burton must have cherished and yet one that was completely wrong for the part. And it is Tim Burton’s folly that transforms Sweeney Todd into an awkward Gothic wonderland, from the bewigged Depp himself, to Carter’s Gothic princess to Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony Hope, complete with long emo hair and features that make him look like a less masculine Anne Hathaway.
Sweeney Todd however fails most obviously not only in its additions but when it sticks faithfully to the musical’s original narrative. When John Logan’s script adds to the story, when Anthony visits with Judge Turpin, the movie is improved. By contrast the musical numbers are lively but empty. In Sweeney Todd the film, Tim Burton transforms the musical into a live action stop motion carnival but the color, the motion and even the gore never actually form a motion picture but only a carnival ride. Sweeney Todd is a poisoned gothic candy apple, glossy and rotten at once, too in love with its own brooding morbidity to capture the original musical’s dark sense of humor and too lacking in story and action to make for anything beyond a gruesome spectacle. As hard as Burton makes his human puppets dance and as much as he pours on the gore, even long before he is dead, Sweeney Todd never comes alive.