I can't complain about the movie's visual appearance on this high-definition HD-DVD. The elaborate sets and costumes are more scrumptious than ever.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

High definition definitely spoils a person. Once you've watched something in HD, you don't want to watch anything else. Although I'm a big fan of movie musicals, having grown up in the 1950s and 60s with some of the best, I did not care overly much for the 2004 film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera." However, I can't complain about the movie's visual appearance on this high-definition HD-DVD. The elaborate sets and costumes are more scrumptious than ever.

No offense to the many fans of this show (given people's varying tastes in music), but I probably should have known better than to go to a movie theater for the film version of this smash Broadway musical. I had already listened to the original cast recording a few years earlier and found it quite tedious, but I wondered if maybe the movie would open it up a bit more and make the rather repetitious Webber music any the more palatable. No such luck.

Now the movie is on HD-DVD, and I have to admit it is pretty easy on the eyes (if not the ears; more on that later). Understand, as I said, I generally love musicals. I also generally love romances, and I generally love horror flicks. I've always liked the old Lon Chaney silent "Phantom," and even some of the remakes. But beautiful HD image or not, I still didn't care much for the music or the characters in this new "Phantom" HD-DVD transfer any more than I liked it in a motion-picture theater. In fact, if it weren't for the picture quality, I'm not sure I could recommend it at all.

I found the movie quite tiresome, with the exception of the Bach/Rachmaninov-sounding organ prelude, which is kind of spooky and melodramatic, and the movie is not helped 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, Butler's 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 initially 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. It's helpful to 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 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 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 particularly romantic. Besides, he's old enough to be the heroine's father, which makes the relationship more creepy than romantic or scary. 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, and vulnerable.

The director, Joel Schumacher, is 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. Unfortunately, Schumacher had never directed a musical before, and 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 apart.

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 film's musical highlights. 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 spooky, actually, but it's a gorgeous-looking scene in the picture and shows up well in high definition. 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, as the survivors reminisce. It's kind of a "Titanic" affair and gets rather gushy fast. In fact, almost 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, which I suppose is why Warner Bros. chose it to showcase their HD-DVDs. 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 repetitive, and the result is less than I would have 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 however 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. The fact is, 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 is 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. Still, as I say, it's fun to look at it in hi-def. 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 has 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 measures the same size on HD-DVD as on the standard-resolution disc, a ratio of 2.40:1. The image at 1080p resolution is about as flawless as one could imagine. With a film so spectacular in appearance as "The Phantom," you would hope for a good HD video transfer, and this one accomplishes the trick. The colors are beautiful, deep and rich, although there is still the same slight glassiness noticeable in facial tones that I saw in the standard-definition transfer. Object delineation is extremely sharp, with little 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. There is so much color in this transfer, you might even want to recalibrate your television accordingly, because it is fairly strong. And WB do not appear to have applied any copy-protection restraints to the disc, meaning it can be played through component video connections with no down-conversion.

I should also mention that I experienced a momentary video dropout about twenty minutes into this film. It lasted only a couple of seconds, corrected itself, and went on. As I could not repeat it, I suspect a piece of dust was the culprit. When I took the disc out and examined it, I saw no obvious flaws, no scratches or fingerprints. Maybe my Toshiba HD-A1's error-correction mechanism is extra fussy about these things; or maybe high-definition discs, with the laser having to read smaller data pits than SD discs, are more susceptible to tiny dust and lint particles. By extension of this latter logic, Blu-ray, with data pits even smaller than HD-DVD, might be even more sensitive to dust. We'll have to wait and see.

The sound on this HD-DVD is available in two English formats: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and Dolby Digital TrueHD. I explained a little about DD Plus in my "Last Samurai" review. Here's what Dolby Labs have to say about DD TrueHD: "Dolby TrueHD is Dolby's next-generation lossless technology developed for high-definition disc-based media. Dolby TrueHD delivers tantalizing sound that is bit-for-bit identical to the studio master.... 100 percent lossless coding technology. Up to 18 Mbps bit rate. Supports up to eight full-range channels of 24-bit/96 kHz audio. Supported by High-Definition Media Interface (HDMI), the new single-cable digital connection for audio and video. Supports extensive metadata including dialogue normalization and dynamic range control."

However, my Toshiba A1 player would not output the DD Plus or TrueHD signals properly, sending them out as DTS signals. Since my receiver does not accept DTS, in order to listen to the disc, I had to use the Toshiba player's analogue 5.1 outputs, which require six separate cables to the receiver. It initially annoyed me that WB didn't think to provide an old-fashioned DD 5.1 track for old-fashioned people with old-fashioned DD 5.1 receivers like me; and then I discovered that the HD-DVD spec does not allow for inclusion of regular DD 5.1, only for new formats like DD Plus and Dolby TrueHD. Fortuitously, the 5.1 analogue outs are cleaner than the more-compressed digital output, anyway, so it works out well.

Now, here's the thing: WB's disc appears to be mastered at some 10-12 db lower than the SD disc. Turning up the volume introduced some small additional, unwanted hiss and hum into the system. Anyway, after adjusting the two discs for equal output, I found the sound of the HD-DVD's DD+ and TrueHD through the analogue outputs was more than acceptable. It seems clear, open, and extended. Of course, increasing the overall volume means that you'll have to turn down the sound the next time you play a standard-definition disc with its greater gain, so be careful not to harm your speakers or your ears.

In any case, in terms of frequency range and dynamic impact, the DD+ and TrueHD 5.1 audio I listened to on "The Phantom" was fine. The front channel stereo spread is wide, and the vocals are well-balanced in relation to their musical accompaniment. Rear-channel effects are mainly there to reinforce musical ambience, but there are a few good sounds in the surrounds, as well, to remind us of the environment, particularly down in the Phantom's underground lair. The TrueHD 5.1 is marginally clearer and more dynamic than DD+ or regular DD 5.1, but it is still mastered at too low a volume level for my liking.

You know you're in trouble when the bonus items are more interesting than the feature film. Because of HD-DVD's greater storage capacity, all of the extra features on disc two of the standard-edition two-disc set now fit onto a single HD disc (although the extras are in 480i, standard definition). The disc 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.

In addition, there are four basic extras: "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. Then, there is a cast sing-a-long that lasts a mercifully short four minutes. And, finally, there is an additional song, "No One Would Listen," about two minutes, sung by the Phantom. It's typically syrupy and a welcome deletion.

I might also add that the disc provides the option to zoom in on a picture in various different zoom modes; I'm not sure why you'd want to do this, but it's there for the fun of it, I guess. The HD-DVD keep case is smaller than a regular DVD keep case, more narrow and less tall.

Parting Shots:
My guess is that many of the people who went to see the enormously popular stage musical of "Phantom of the Opera" undoubtedly were impressed by its lavish sets and costumes; but because movie audiences were already used to spectacular visual effects, it may be one reason the movie enjoyed a rather lackluster response on screen, the whole thing being mostly a tribute to the set designer's elegant if inflated creations and costar Emmy Rossum's heaving bosom. Still, the improved visual attributes of HD-DVD may make these very things enough of a plus to induce viewers to buy the movie on disc. I surely have nothing against beautiful set designs or heaving bosoms, be they in high-definition or not.

Incidentally, after my less-than-enthusiastic review of "The Phantom of the Opera" in its standard-definition edition, I was taken to task by several "Phantom" fans who told me I didn't like the movie because I couldn't appreciate a "modern musical." They may have a point, but I had to remind them that I loved the recent movie version of "Chicago," and that, in any case, Webber wrote the music for "The Phantom" almost a quarter of a century ago, and Leroux's story line has been kicking around for a hundred years! Maybe we have different definitions of "modern."


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