Warner Bros. // 2004 // 141 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // May 9th, 2005
The Phantom: This face, which earned a mother's fear and loathing. A mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing. Pity comes too late, turn around and face your fate, an eternity of this before your eyes.
Fourteen years after flashy gay Hollywood director Joel Schumacher and spectacle-obsessed metrosexual maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber agreed to make a movie version of Webber's international blockbuster musical, here it finally is. Schumacher got the job immediately after Webber saw the director's work on The Lost Boys. (Luckily for Schumacher, Webber hadn't seen Batman and Robin...) A messy divorce between Webber and original leading lady Sarah Brightman thwarted a 1990 adaptation. Troubles with scheduling prevented a '90s production with either John Travolta or Antonio Banderas donning the mask. So now here is a young, mostly unknown cast taking on roles that loom large in our collective imaginations and hoping to seduce us once more into loving "the music of the night," well over a decade after Phantom mania began to recede. Will it all be worth it, or will we be wishing for a Broadway ticket instead of a DVD case? Keep your hand at the level of your eyes as we descend into hell to find an angel who calls himself The Phantom of the Opera.
It's a tale as old as time. Disfigured, misanthropic masked figure lives beneath opera house posing as a ghost; wreaks havoc on people he doesn't like. Along comes a beautiful innocent young chorus girl. Masked figure falls hard for her. Mr. Beast decides to mysteriously teach his beauty to sing by appearing in her mirror. She has no idea who he is, and mistakes him for an angel of music sent by her father. Through a series of carefully constructed "accidents" she is given the chance to sing the lead at the opera, and becomes a star. Enter her childhood sweetheart, conveniently wealthy and ready to sweep her off her feet. Little does Prince Charming know his competition for the girl is a psychotic ghost figure who wears sexy accessories like a white half-mask and a whooshing cape. Will the girl turn to the dark side and run off to the sewers with her seductive, sexy freak, or will she settle down with the bland but wealthy fop on a white horse? No matter who she ends up with, you can count on someone getting tied up, someone finding a wax figure of themselves, and a whole lot of singing before The Phantom of the Opera is over.
The Phantom of the Opera movie is pure fantasy, wall-to-wall music, always beautiful, and over-the-top. Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber are long lost artistic soulmates, finally together. Schumacher began his film career as a fashion designer for wardrobe departments, and thinks visually more than he does about characters in most of his movies. Webber is notorious for creating theatrical shows where spectacle hides thin librettos and simple songs that tell simple stories. Phantom of the Opera the stage musical was always like the Star Wars of Broadway. It is flashy, pulpy, and fun. Is it any surprise the movie version is an overdose of style with little else behind it?
This is a gorgeous movie -- sumptuous, even. The costumes, the designs, the cast, the orchestrations -- they are all beautiful. I'll bet if we saw the technical crew, or even the people at the craft services table, they'd also be pretty as a picture. If you want beauty, The Phantom of the Opera is going to bowl you over from the opening scene. There are sequences that literally suck the breath out of you because they are so gorgeous -- a theater is returned to golden and blood-red splendor from decrepitude with some artful CGI, lit candles emerge from underwater, smoke wraps up around roses, and candelabras are held by gold muscular arms in a hallway resplendent with a golden glow. You'll swoon, and there's probably a danger of passing out at some point. I'll bet several interior decorators and florists had to be administered oxygen at the premiere due to uncontrollable gasps and squeals. This is not a slavish reconstruction of the stage musical. The entire world has been blown up into lavish proportions by team Schumacher in all the art departments, and some key alterations have been made to the production and the script.
First off, all the leads were cast because they looked pretty, and were age appropriate to draw in a younger audience. Expecting a middle-aged Sarah Brightman or Michael Crawford to appear in the roles they originated? Hardly. Webber gave Schumacher a lot of freedom to cast whomever he wanted, and only asked that he have final approval after a singing audition. Emmy Rossum (the dead daughter from Mystic River) was sixteen when she began working on Phantom of the Opera. She beat out Charlotte Church, Keira Knightly, Katie Holmes, and Anne Hathaway for the part of Christine. Much has been made of the fact she sang with the Met's children's chorus when she was seven, but she hadn't sung in over five years. She is amazingly beautiful as lead Christine Daae, and thankfully her voice is strong and clear. Hunky chain-smoker Gerard Butler (Dracula from Dracula 2000) had never done musical theatre when he landed the lead role as the Phantom. He had been in some failed rock bands during his youth, but this ex-lawyer was never classically trained in voice. The producers never worried; they just cranked up the reverb and let him loose in tight pants and open-chested pirate shirts. He has a hard time with the screechy tenor composed for Michael Crawford, but he certainly looks sexy as hell tucking in his butt and praying he hits that high-C. Patrick Wilson (the conservative Mormon from Angels in America) is cast in the thankless wuss role of Raoul, Christine's suitor. Strangely enough, hair and wardrobe seems to have thought he was being prepped for Les Miserables, since they gelled his long extensions and gave him a French revolutionary's wardrobe. He has a nice natural baritone, and always looks fetching whether he's bleeding or trapped underwater. Watch closely, as rumor has it Wilson did all of his own stunts.
The supporting cast sports a few well-known actors, including Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) as Carlotta and Miranda Richardson (Spider) as Madame Giry. Driver seems to be having a ball, with her thick Italian accent and a scene-stealing performance as the comical opera diva, complete with poodles and wicked tantrums. The two new Opera Populaire owners, played by English character actors Ciarin Hinds and Simon Callow, are a scream as well. They are hilarious as they have to "grovel, grovel" (a tribute to Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) to beg Carlotta to stay. Miranda Richardson affects a thick French accent, and adds a touch of mystery with some well-placed hovering and arch looks when required.
Together Schumacher and Webber developed a movie script that varies a little from the stage production. Webber wrote fifteen minutes of different music and alternate lyrics for the updated version. The spectacular chandelier crash that closed Act One of the play is now moved to the climax of the movie. The Phantom delivers fewer written notes. A sword fight in a graveyard is inserted to beef up the action. Spinning mirrors act as a trap for Raoul when he chases the Phantom, and Christine is led on a horse by the Phantom in a couple of nods to the original source novel. An Elephant Man origin story for the Phantom is delivered by Madame Giry, and her part is expanded to take full use of Miranda Richardson. A new conclusion sheds light on Christine and the Phantom's fate. Gone is the mysterious self-playing piano from the Don Juan Triumphant rehearsals, and several key parts of Raoul's songs are excised or trimmed. The trademark Phantom masks are all cut down (in most cases smaller than Zorro's) to show more of Gerard Butler's chiseled profile. (In the stage production, the Phantom often appears in hooded robes and full-head skull masks.)
The stage production relied heavily on synthesizers, and was well entrenched in the tradition of rock opera-meets-new wave symphonies. Here, a mind-boggling 110-piece orchestra was assembled to play the lavish (if sing-song) melodies of the score. Sometimes it seems like overkill, especially when it drowns out the amateur singers. But more often than not, this is the lushest the musical's score has ever sounded. It joins every other element of the production by indulging in the joys of excess and major grandiosity.
This was, historically, the most expensive independent feature ever made (by some claims from the documentary). The chandelier in the movie weighed over two tons, and cost 1.3 million dollars -- more than many entire movie budgets. The theater was sculpted to perfection by a team of designers who had worked on the original stage production. During a climactic fire, Schumacher decided to really torch the place so he could get a more believable effect. The candelabras that light when rising out of the water only worked for one take, because of a special wick that they had to use. The movie looks like a million dollars in every sequence, and the production design stands out easily.
The DVD comes in two flavors -- a single disc "movie only" edition, and a two disc set. Here at the Verdict we received the single disc version, and I purposefully held off reviewing this title until I could get my hands on the fully loaded edition. So don't let the poor score in the extras category make you think I was half-drunk on anything other than the gorgeous images I had just watched. The score reflects the fact the single disc only includes a trailer. Although this review is nominally of the single disc version, I will run down the features of the other version for your reference. The additional disc in the deluxe set includes two documentaries. One traces the story from book to film, with major attention paid to the musical as a stage production. The other details the making of this film, separated into three featurettes. Also included is a short deleted sequence with Gerard Butler singing "No One Would Listen," an easy-to-find Easter Egg with the cast and crew singing along, and a DVD-ROM link to the Phantom's world on-line. Grab the expanded edition, because it will usually only cost a dollar or two more and provides valuable insight into the project.
The transfer is stunning both visually and audibly. The original 2.40:1 aspect ratio is preserved in an anamorphic treatment that shows incredible color accuracy and no edge enhancement. The only technical glitch is some grain during candlelit and dark sequences, but my money says that was on the original print and has nothing to do with the DVD authoring. The 5.1 surround mix is gorgeous and well done. Your speakers will rattle in all the right places, and the whispers are as clear as the screams. This is a beautiful transfer that rivals the work done on Moulin Rouge. This is the best transfer I've seen so far this year.
Sometimes I didn't feel as sucked in as I should have been by the characters, and the actors are not to blame. The play was always sketchy, and relied on spectacle more than character insight or musical inventiveness. Webber's shows have always been lauded for their theatrical panache more than for their technical merit. The score seems syrupy, and there is too much repetition in both lyrics and melodic themes. Webber was never a complex composer, and his songs are often sing-songy and lack the character insight someone like Sondheim always delivers. The additions Schumacher and Webber made for the screen treatment are meant to fill in holes that have always existed in the story since its debut in the West End of London. But they don't really add much, and we're still left with a story that makes more sense to the sensory perceptions, but has hardly any logic or clear storytelling. We're asked to accept that Christine loves both Raoul and the Phantom without seeing much of the "why" for either. The Phantom is mysterious and sexy, but he's hardly forthcoming, or even romantic, other than that he wears a cool cape and has a great secret cave lair. Vicki Vale had more reason to love Batman. Raoul really doesn't even have the sexy cave or the wardrobe, and it's even more mysterious why Christine would prefer him other than in a gold-digger sense. Both men seem to be illusions rather than flesh or blood; essentially she's in love with two phantoms for the price of one.
Many people have talked about what a revelation Emmy Rossum is in the role of Christine. She certainly sings better than any of her male co-stars, and she is absolutely stunning in her beauty. She admitted to the press that she had never seen the stage production, and she definitely differentiates herself from the original take by Sarah Brightman. Sarah's voice was thinner and more pop-oriented, but she had the dark side of Christine down to an art. In the stage production there were several moments when I believed Brightman's Christine was going to let Colm Wilkinson's Raoul bite it so she could run off with the Phantom. Emmy never gets to that level of sexual bloodlust and depravity. Her performance in "Past the Point of No Return" is sexy, but it's not dark enough for me to buy the love triangle to the extent Webber wants us to. She lacks the charisma and sexual presence older actresses have brought to the role (which was conceived in the original novel as a girl in her mid-twenties). She nails the wide-eyed innocence, but that's only half the battle. I was disappointed she wasn't darker when the script called for it, but do admit she sings beautifully and certainly embodies the innocent role well.
The lip-synching is pretty bad in several spots. The only one who did not actually sing was Minnie Driver, who was dubbed. (Carlotta's singing was done by a vocal teacher from England named Margaret Preece.) Yet Driver nails the lip-synching more effectively than her co-stars, who had to sing their songs in the studio. Maybe she had to study harder since she hadn't sung the original recording. Baz Luhrman recorded the songs for Moulin Rouge in a studio, but he forced his cast to sing the songs on set while filming (even the ones who were entirely dubbed). I wish Schumacher had employed a similar tactic to match the singing better, it would have compromised their prettiness, but helped the believability of the performances.
After countless movie adaptations, and at least two major Broadway musicals (the other was the Phantom production by Maury Yeltsin), the Phantom in this opera seems to have lost all his scariness. They don't shoot for horror at any moment, only strange romance and sexual heat. Gerard Butler is never a threat in any way, except maybe as a candidate to deflower Christine. And with this film's new "only slightly disfigured" make-up job, one can imagine it would take two margaritas to make anyone ignore that left side of the Phantom's face. This is not Gothic horror at all in the hands of Joel "it's all got to be pretty" Schumacher; it's a musical version of a Harlequin romance novel. Even the stage production took the disfigurement further into the realm of the grotesque, but this time around it's all about still being sexy even when scarred. Anyone hoping for horrific moments -- even in the reveal of what's under the mask -- will be disappointed.
It is painfully obvious that going in to The Phantom of the Opera, you'll probably know if you are going to love it or not. You have to surrender to it and treat it as a fantasy thrill ride with some amazing scenery, pretty people, and nice songs. It's easily one of the best looking movies ever made. The art direction is truly sublime, and the cast is just as easy on the eyes. Whether you buy into the thinly-drawn romantic triangle largely depends on your willingness to fill in the blanks yourself. I know people who analyze it for hours, and see things in the nuances of the performances I never thought were clear. It's a romantic Rorschach test for believers in true love. Fans of the stage production will undoubtedly be fans of the film, and people who never understood the Phantom hype will find that this movie will do little to change their opinion. The DVD has a wonderful transfer, and the expanded deluxe edition has enough extras to mandate a purchase. This single disc edition will only give you the movie, but for people who care nothing about how movies are made it will suffice. Either way, you get a dazzling, pretty movie with a well-rendered soundtrack.
The Phantom of the Opera is free to haunt gorgeous theatres anytime he wants. Who would deny him? This is a perfect vehicle for Joel Schumacher, who seems in his element here when the only goal is to dazzle with fashion and sets. The music is soaring, and strongly delivered in most cases. It's classic Andrew Lloyd Webber. While the play is superior, if only for the urgency of a live performance, the film is certainly a fine experience. Not guilty of anything other than being a fabulously overblown romance. When you need an escape, here's your ticket.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 141 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Fan Site