The two big Hollywood musicals of the year were Adam Shankman’s family friendly remake of John Waters’ classic “Hairspray” and Tim Burton’s eerily fun film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s award winning “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” While the latter film was dead-on and brought chills of excitement and surprise, the first film was, well, just dead.
When it comes to film adaptations and remakes, the key to creating something worth watching is infusing the elements that made the source material great with a similar but unique flair. Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” does this perfectly. The famed dark director is quite faithful to what fans loved about the musical but adds his own directorial signature from beginning to end.
The story is simple: Benjamin Barker, alias Sweeney Todd, (Johnny Depp) is a vengeful man who returns to London after many years to seek revenge on Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who framed him in order to steal away Barker’s wife. When he returns he meets up with the pie making Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who brings him back into his career as a barber. Todd becomes quite popular as the new barber in town after beating street performer/salesman Pirelli (the inimitable and superbly cast Sacha Baron Cohen). When Todd starts his killing spree from the seat of his barber’s chair, he and Mrs. Lovett begin their business of killing and baking.
The film is delightfully sick and is just great entertainment. Burton’s style is seen from the very beginning with his trademark animated opening sequence. The rest of the film does feel a little bit too reminiscent of Burton’s previous films from Todd’s unquestionable resemblance to Edward Scissorhands (also played by Depp), from Helena Bonham Carter’s “Beetlejuice” hairdo, and from the setting (Todd’s shop looks like a refined version of the castle in “Scissorhands”). But Burton knows his subject matter, and he knows who its fans are and why they love the famous musical. It would just be nice to see another Burton film that isn’t so perfectly fitted towards his aesthetic (like he did with his best piece “Ed Wood”).
The star of the film is Johnny Depp, and he gives another memorable performance and creates a marvelous character that seems quite simple but has many complexities and layers. Todd’s character doesn’t really change through the course of the film but Depp’s charismatic portrayal is fun, scary, and inviting all in one. He takes what could be a very unlikable character and gives us an explosive assurance of his talent.
On the other side of the coin, Adam Shankman’s “Hairspray” just falls flat. From the very beginning of the film it was quite obvious that it wanted us to think that it was an important movie. Well, it’s not.
The story is of Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), a young girl in the 1960s who loves music and dance but is unfortunately a bit heavier than the girls on her favorite TV program, “The Corny Collins Show.” She gets the chance to audition for the show and after a series of events involving her being noticed dancing with one of the “negroes”, she makes it on the show. The film has rich dark themes that originally made John Waters famous. Unfortunately Adam Shankman and his team just didn’t get it and the film suffered.
The makers of the film did not understand its subject matter at all. This is a movie being advertised as a family film and has many dark sides that just come off as inappropriate. It just seems that the film they wanted to make didn’t fit its material source. Even the recent successful “High School Musical” films have had at least appropriate, family friendly messages (albeit cheesy and nauseating). The original film turned into a quite popular and winning Broadway musical that seemed more fitting for the stage rather than in movie theaters. Broadway doesn’t always turn into great films and this is another example of what happens when the translation doesn’t work.
The performances are also mostly poor, and while the production has a few awkwardly funny scenes it really comes off as annoying. Especially irritating is the “performance” of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, who just seems to be entertaining himself. His character sounds like she had once had a slight stroke and most of the time it’s hard to understand what she’s saying. Nikki Blonsky is undeniably adorable as the film’s heroine but she’s really the only performer in the film that has any kind of likeability.
In comparison, “Sweeney Todd” reaches high into the stratosphere of great Broadway adaptations whereas “Hairspray” wallows in the gutters. One film is perfect entertainment due to its expertly capable star and its accomplished director while the other is like an unending headache personified through a truly creepy performance by John Travolta and a poor performance from a director who has had made a career of flops (Shankman brought us the likes of “Cheaper By the Dozen 2” and the idiotic “The Pacifier).
“Hairspray” has seen all sorts of financial successes that “Sweeney Todd” may never see, but the latter film will be remembered as the better film. Both films proved that adapting a musical for the screen is an acquired skill, something that needs to be done appropriately and faithfully. What would have really sealed the deal on this whole comparison would be to see a blood stained Sweeney Todd angling his blade against a bovine John Travolta and just seeing the guts flying out. Hey Vincent Vega, how about a shave?
Sweeney Todd: A-