The movie is so overblown, so much is meant to dazzle the eye, that it overwhelms the characters and the music.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

I should have known better, but I went to see the 2004 film version of the smash Broadway musical "The Phantom of the Opera" in a theater. I had already listened to the Broadway cast recording a few years before and found it bored me to tears, but I wondered if maybe the movie would open it up a bit more and make the tedious Andrew Lloyd Webber music any the more palatable. No such luck.

Now the movie is on disc, and I've had yet another chance at it. Understand, I generally love musicals. I generally love romances. I generally love horror movies. I've always liked the old Lon Chaney silent "Phantom," and even some of the remakes. But I didn't like this new "Phantom" any more on DVD than I liked it on CD or in a motion-picture theater.

The movie was as tiresome as before, with the exception of the Bach/Rachmaninov-sounding organ prelude, which is kind of spooky and melodramatic, and the movie is not helped out by a silent-screen looking, Valentino-type matinee idol, Gerard Butler of "Dracula 2000" fame, as the Phantom. His face is supposed to be hideously deformed. In the silent Chaney version, when the heroine pulled off the Phantom's mask and his face was revealed, audiences gasped, women fainted, and grown men sprinted for the aisles. But here, the Phantom is barely deformed; a little disfiguration over one side of his face. It's certainly nothing to have kept him from ever appearing in public his entire life, but apparently he had more psychological problems than physical ones.

The film is also supposed to be very romantic and all, so the audience I saw it with in a theater was made up almost entirely of young teenage girls (who should have been in high school at that time of day) and people over seventy who probably knew Lon Chaney in his youth. Be aware of this movie's target audience.

Basically, you could say the movie was in production for the last fifteen years. It was supposed to have been made way back in 1990, using the stage musical's original stars, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, but that fell through, and by the time the movie finally did get rolling, they were too old for the parts. Antonio Banderos, among others, was considered for the role of the Phantom, but it eventually went to Mr. Butler, who was thought to have the right combination of sexy yet menacing good looks. Frankly, I found him rather flat expressively and, as I've said, hardly frightening. Worse, while he is handsome, he isn't very romantic. Besides, he's old enough to be the heroine's father. The female lead, Emmy Rossum playing the operatic ingenue Christine Daae, was sixteen at the time of the filming, the same age as the heroine in Gaston Leroux's 1908 novel upon which close to a dozen films have now been based. Rossum is the best thing about the film--beautiful, delicate, vulnerable.

The director is Joel Schumacher, most noted for his action films: "Batman & Robin," "Batman Forever," "Phone Booth," "The Lost Boys." It was because of the latter film that Webber noticed him and wanted him to direct the movie version of his Broadway hit. He liked the way Schumacher used music in "The Lost Boys," and he probably also liked the dark tone Schumacher employed for that picture. Too bad Schumacher had never directed a musical before. He may never again.

In case you're not familiar with the story, "The Phantom" is set in 1870 at the Paris Opera House, where a mysterious "ghost" lives in the building's underground catacombs, a series of labyrinthine waterways that in the movie look like the canals of Venice but were in reality a part of the Paris sewer system. This "Phantom" has been living down there for most of his life, afraid to show his face because of a supposed horrible disfigurement (that I've already mentioned is hardly something he needed to hide) and a presumed suspicion of people in general. He makes a comfortable living by coercing the owners of the opera house into paying him a monthly salary for not tearing the place down.

Also living in the opera house is the beautiful young woman, Christine, who was raised there by Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) after Christine's parents died. Ms. Giry is the only one who knows the identity of the Phantom. Needless to say, the Phantom (whose name is never mentioned in the movie but who is called Erik in the book) takes a liking to Christine and guides her singing pursuits, unbeknownst to her. Somehow, he has only been a disembodied voice to her, and she has wondered if he wasn't the spirit of her dead father directing her career. Now that Christine has grown up, the Phantom has developed something more than a "liking" for her. Meanwhile, a new patron of the opera house enters the picture, young Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a childhood sweetheart of Christine who is reunited with her, annoying the Phantom no end and forming the third part of a deadly triangle.

The music actually tells the story better than I can, so let's take a look at a few of the bigger tunes. The movie opens with a brief overture and then it's on to "Think of Me," where the opera company's diva, a temperamental prima donna named Carlotta, overplayed by Minnie Driver, is sabotaged by the Phantom in order for Christine to take over in her stead. Next comes "Angel of Music," wherein Christine, alone, sings of her unknown benefactor. "The Mirror" is a song about the looking glass in Christine's dressing room through which she first sees the Phantom. Presumably, it's a two-way mirror, the dirty old man. In the song "The Phantom of the Opera" Christine sings to the mysterious stranger as he leads her down to his luxurious subterranean abode.

"The Music of the Night" is among the highlights in the musical department. It's one of the loveliest songs in the show. Shortly thereafter, we hear "Prima Donna," sung by the opera house's two new owners, Mr. Firmin (Ciaron Hinds) and Mr. Andre (Simon Callow), who are trying to persuade Carlotta to return to the opera. Hinds is all but forgettable but Callow is amusing. "All I Ask of You" is sung by Christine and Raoul as they pledge their love for one another, with the sneaky Phantom always eavesdropping. It's the best song in the film, so naturally it is reprised; (when you've got a good thing, milk it). "Masquerade" is a big production number at a gala ball, crashed by the Phantom. Then, there's "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," sung by Christine in the cemetery of her father's tomb, as she yearns for the old days, her childhood, and her father. It's kind of creepy, actually, but it's a gorgeous-looking scene in the snow. A number of other melodies follow, mostly things reprised from earlier in the story, and the movie closes with "Learn To Be Lonely" sung over the closing credits.

The whole narrative is told in an overtly sentimental manner by using flashbacks to these events, while the survivors reminisce. It's kind of a "Titanic" affair and gets rather gushy fast. In fact, everything about the production is gushy and overdone. The movie is so overblown, so much is meant to dazzle the eye, that it overwhelms the characters and the music. Add to that the fact that the love story is sappy, the horror is nonexistent, and the music, with a couple of exceptions, is largely repetitious and boring, and the result is less than hoped for. The two best scenes are the aforementioned cemetery segment and a short bit in a hall of mirrors. The Phantom's basement maze of canals seems more silly than atmospheric or haunting, and how does the guy manage to keep about two zillion candles burning down there? Does he light them all himself and keep them glowing endlessly, or did he light them all especially for Christine? Even the movie's length is overblown, 141 minutes, as it apparently tries to duplicate everything in the stage production. Enough is enough. Watching a movie is not the same thing as watching a live musical, and a least a half an hour could have been cut.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Song, "Learn To Be Lonely." I found the art direction awfully busy. It's opulent in the extreme, but it gets so detailed with every inch of screen space filled with something new and fascinating, it's hard to concentrate on the story or the characters. The cinematography is certainly imaginative, although here, too, I found it busy, the camera continuously zooming in and around the people and sets rather than resting comfortably on any one thing for very long. And why was "Learn To Be Lonely" nominated when "All I Ask of You" and "The Music of the Night" are clearly better songs? Well, the nominated song does have to be written specifically for the movie, so that's all there is to that. In any case, the movie won no Oscars.

Ultimately, you could say the movie version of "The Phantom of the Opera" sinks or swims with Andrew Lloyd Webber. And in my opinion, he almost drowns it. Webber created the original stage show; he cowrote the movie; and he produced it. At least we know who to blame, because it couldn't have all been Schumacher's fault.

The picture actually looks wider on DVD than I remember it from the theater, presented on disc in a ratio measuring 2.40:1. The image is anamorphic, enhanced for 16x9 TVs, and the result is pretty good. With a film so spectacular in appearance as "The Phantom," you would hope for a good video transfer, and this one comes off well. The colors are beautiful, although there is a very slight glassiness noticeable in facial tones, which can also be a touch light. Object delineation is fairly sharp, with only a hint of color bleed-through. And except in the opening and intermittent black-and-white scenes, where grain is intentional, the screen is remarkably clean.

The sound is reproduced via Dolby Digital 5.1 processing, and in terms of frequency range and dynamic impact it is quite impressive. Front channel stereo spread is wide, and vocals are well-balanced in relation to their musical accompaniment. Rear-channel effects are used mainly to reinforce musical ambiance, but there are a few good noises in the surrounds as well to remind us of the environment, particularly down in the Phantom's underground lair.

You know you're in trouble when the bonus items are more interesting than the feature film, and that's not saying much. Disc one contains the movie itself; a widescreen theatrical trailer; thirty-six scene selections (but no chapter insert); English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. My biggest complaint is that Warner Bros. chose to create menus that open up so slowly that by the time something finally arrives on the screen, you're out of the mood to watch it. I assume the WB disc producers were attempting to replicate the dreamy mood of the story; I dunno. The Disney people do this a lot, too, with their animated menus, trying to make them as much fun as possible, but even they irritate me. I want a menu to take me somewhere quickly, not entertain me. Just get on with it. Dang, I'm grumpy.

Disc two contains three basic items: "Behind the Mask: The Story of the Phantom of the Opera"; "The Making of the Phantom of the Opera: Preproduction, the Director, and the Production"; and a deleted scene, "No One Would Listen." The documentary "Behind the Mask" is sixty-five minutes long and contains information on the development of the original stage production, with comments from Webber, plus from the original director, producer, lyricist, and stage actors. For Andrew Lloyd Webber fans, I suppose this information is essential. Next, we have info about the making of the movie, starting with its "Preproduction," a seventeen-minute segment subtitled "Origins and Casting of the Phantom of the Opera." It's pretty much self-explanatory, again with a multitude of complimentary remarks from the participants. Then, there is "Designing the Phantom of the Opera," eleven minutes on the technical aspects of making the movie, a part I liked best because I'm intrigued by how miniatures and such are made to create a movie's illusions. The last of the three sections is subtitled "Supporting Cast and Recording the Album of the Phantom of the Opera." It's seventeen minutes long and contains a good deal more talk, this time about the music, the movie's other cast members, and a few more technical effects, like the crashing of the chandelier. Finally, there's the additional song "No One Would Listen," about two minutes, sung by the Phantom. It's typically syrupy and a welcome deletion.

Parting Shots:
I almost walked out of the theater early when I first tried to watch "The Phantom of the Opera," and I was tempted to do the same while watching the DVD; but knowing I had a responsibility to readers, I stayed the course. What a trooper I am, and what a pooper the film can be. The whole thing is mostly a tribute to the set designer's elegant if inflated creations and costar Emmy Rossum's heaving bosom. And, remember, I like musicals (and I have nothing against bosoms).


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