Bursting with red blood and black humor, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd starts out rough. As in: "Ah, shit." Or: "Oh, right—this is why I hate musicals!"
Nice one, Tim: By starting Sweeney Todd with one of the film's worst musical numbers, you've ensured that a ton of people are going to ask for their money back five minutes after the opening credits. Like much of Stephen Sondheim's music for Sweeney Todd, the first number is terrible, but give Burton some time: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street eventually transcends its goofy Broadway roots to become Burton's best film since Ed Wood.
A darkly funny story of outcasts in Victorian London, Sweeney Todd is custom built for Burton's cartoonishly macabre style. Here, Burton's subjects look like they usually do (bleached skin, unkempt hair, sunken eyes), and their histories are appropriately mopey: Jerkhole Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) imprisons barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) so that he can steal Barker's wife. Years later, Barker—now calling himself Sweeney Todd—returns to London to kill Turpin. But things don't go according to plan, and soon, the simultaneously intense and silly barber (he's got a holster for his straight razor!) is slashing the throat of any poor bastard who's dumb enough to ask for a shave.
Todd's barbershop, luckily, sits above the bakery of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who's kind enough to turn all those bodies into delicious meat pies. Throw in a few excellently cast supporting characters—namely, rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) and evil henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall)—and you've got a solid cast and some mostly solid material.
With a sneering snarl borrowed from Johnny Rotten, the always-excellent Depp brings a cruel vigor to Sondheim's cheesy songs, but Carter steals the show as the nasty (yet heartwarmingly sympathetic!) Mrs. Lovett. Sweeney Todd's best characters are pathetic degenerates—miserable, mean, and desperate for things that they cannot have—and the film works best when Burton balances the material's cynicism, humor, and melodrama. In bursts, even—as he's sending his camera reeling down London's grimy, labyrinthine streets, or as he's splattering the screen with Technicolor arterial sprays—one senses Burton's more inspired than he's been in a while. But then a crappy song will ruin everything. Yes, Sweeney Todd is good, and fun, and sinister—but it'd be better if, every time a showtune started blaring, one didn't start to wonder how much better it could have been.