Warner Bros. // 2004 // 141 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // June 19th, 2006
The waiting is over. Let the fantasy begin.
Since its 1986 stage adaptation by the accomplished Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar), this tale of mystery and passion has commanded continual sold-out engagements in over 100 cities in seven countries. A year after its premiere, it moved to a Broadway engagement where it still plays to this day.
Can it be that the musical version of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera is truly a work of perfection, of elegance defined? Maybe.
It's 1870 and, just as ownership of the grand Opera Populaire has changed hands, so too does it appear that the resident prima donna, Carlotta (Minnie Driver, Goldeneye) may be up for transition. The unassuming Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum, Poseidon) has been content to be a background player yet has been honing her vocal talent thanks to a mysterious tutor who speaks to her from the ether of her dressing room. Top billing at the opera house is not the only thing under contention as the strapping Raoul (Patrick Wilson, The Alamo) is actively vying for Christine's love. The triangle emerges, though, when we learn it is the mysterious Erik (Gerard Butler, Dracula 2000) -- the Phantom that haunts the opera house -- is not only Christine's clandestine tutor but also a candidate for her adoration. Smitten by Christine's radiance, the Phantom delivers notes to the owners and Carlotta that Christine is to be promoted to center stage. Likewise, he instructs Christine that she is to cut off relations with Raoul and devote herself entirely her impassioned yet impatient mentor. Naturally, when the Phantom's instructions are disregarded, tragedy strikes those who rebuff his proclaimed control over all that occurs in and around his opera house.
Where's Michael Crawford? It has been the question on most die-hard Phantom fans lips since the film was converted to big-screen "event." And while some have certainly lauded this newest adaptation, many more have outwardly loathed it.
As neither proponent nor opponent, my perspective is derived from the source material itself and the initial film version from 1925 starring the incomparable Lon Chaney. Lloyd Webber gets high marks, first, for returning to Gaston Leroux's original narrative, presenting the Phantom as a disfigured creature from birth, shunned by his own mother and driven to exist in dungeons seven stories beneath the Paris opera house. He did embellish this with the extension of young Erik having been exploited by a Carny barker, but that's trivial. Having been adapted for the big and small screens so many times, Leroux's tale was ultimately twisted to indicate Erik's disfigurement was accidental after he attempted to reclaim his masterpiece cantata, that which had been ruthlessly stolen by the opera house owners (see 1943's The Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains or 1974's Phantom of the Paradise starring William Finley as the Phantom). Further, Lloyd Webber continues to provide the major elements and sequences as seen in the 1925 film version and is to be commended for retaining the story's original structure. Of course, the passion and inert sexuality is significantly emboldened here, surely to attract show audiences. Here is where the adaptation diverges from Leroux's vision and sharply dispenses of mystery and horror with little, if any, apology. As an adaptation, then, Webber's incarnation is reasonably entertaining as a production "inspired" by an original work.
Then came the film and Joel Schumacher.
Schumacher has a visual style, no doubt, yet he still lacks the ability (or desire?) to uphold his imagery with solid narrative. As he did with the franchise-killing Batman Forever, here again Schumacher delivers alluring in-camera compositions yet defers to style over substance. As elegant and opulent as the production is -- and it truly is a sumptuous treat for the eyes -- its extravagant execution overshadows the unfolding events at hand. Curiously enough, the original Universal Pictures 1925 production was also forced to endure inferior direction, that under the wobbly hand of Rupert Julian.
This visual upstaging, such as it is, also includes the recasting of the characters, many who perform admirably -- especially Rossum and Driver. Butler, as the Phantom, however, is an unmitigated letdown. Schumacher deliberately recast his production to include younger actors, therefore increasing appeal to younger audiences. Butler simply doesn't have the chops to keep up with the superior Rossum, visually nor vocally. Yes, Butler does look very dashing in his blousy opened shirts with dark slicked-back hair but he doesn't embody the requisite dread necessary for the character. And, Schumacher commits the ultimate sin by severely downplaying the impact of the famous unmasking scene, Chaney's still the ultimate pinnacle yet to be approached by this or any subsequent production. Oh, and Wilson's Raoul is certainly vocally talented yet lacks any grace to his movement, bodily or facially, and relegates himself as an overly stiff character.
Whether you're a fan or a detractor of this film version of Phantom of the Opera, the matter at hand with this newest release is whether it maximizes the full spectrum of capability in the HD DVD format. As a flagship release made available day and date alongside Toshiba's HD DVD players (the HD-1A and HD-X1A), early adopters were eager to have their socks knocked off by whatever media they could get their hands on. Unfortunately, while Phantom of the Opera certainly looks striking in 1080p resolution (actually displayed in 1080i by the Toshiba hardware), it lacks the jaw-dropping depth and texture of other HD DVD releases. The color seems to get the greatest boost in this rendering while the texture is strangely softened. Unlike other releases in which you can marvel at the clarity of every pore and hair on an actor's flesh, here the facial detail is softened (intentionally?) and, thereby, the depth is considerably flattened in consideration to what it could/should be. The color and contrast is certainly steady in this 2:40:1 widescreen transfer, but the lack of detail level renders this to look more like an upconverted SD version as opposed to a bona fide HD improvement. There were no compression artifacts encountered during playback save for a distinct rainbow effect during the production company logos that preceded the film.
On the audio side, this disc features the options of Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD tracks. Although HD enthusiasts are eager for the TrueHD lossless track, the current hardware cannot deliver this in anything beyond a 2.0 delivery (with reports that next-generation players will have this issue resolved, audio components naturally requiring upgrade as well). But the DD+ track is a definite improvement over the SD version's audio with the orchestration practically exploding from all corners of the soundstage (the opening overture is especially impressive). Oddly, there is a questionable lack of high-end fidelity to the track, seemingly as if the crispness the track aspires to has been summarily clipped. As one of the early HD releases in which Warner Brothers strangely recorded the track at ~10db lower than usual presentation levels, this could be part of what afflicts this underachieving track.
As for extras, Warner Brothers does a good job of providing the full complement of bonus features as can be found on the SD special edition release (and the previously hidden Easter egg is plainly selectable from the interactive menu). These features are presented in standard definition, improved by the inherent upconversion the Toshiba players provide. The interactive menus are especially useful here as each extra feature is accompanied by a sample image and running time statistics upon navigation.
There were no technical issues encountered while viewing the main feature and extra material.
Perhaps you disagree that this should ever be -- or ever have been -- a horror-musical. While the premise seems implausible that two presumably diametrically opposed genres could ever effectively coexist in a single production, I find that this Phantom of the Opera loses far to much of its potential from not even attempting to deliver a requisite amount of mystery and foreboding dread. It's a horror story, first and foremost, and by discarding that pedigree outright, it becomes as effective as the musical stage production of The Poseidon Adventure.
Whether you agree or disagree with the sentiments put forth here regarding the effectiveness of Phantom of the Opera, the real discussion this time around is whether this newly-mastered HD DVD version is worthy of a purchase; in a word, no. Thankfully, other releases have adeptly harnessed the wow and wonder of HD and the format is being proven as a worthy endeavor. Online rental services are offering HD discs now and, to that end, it's recommend you rent this disc before committing to a purchase.
This court finds Phantom of the Opera guilty for reasons of artistic presumption and technological indifference.
Review content copyright © 2006 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 141 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Featurette: "Behind the Mask"
* Featurette: "The Making of the Phantom of the Opera"
* Interviews: "In Conversation"
* Additional Scene: "No One Would Listen"
* Theatrical Trailer