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Ghoulish fun

Tim Burton's love for 'Sweeney Todd' shines through in film adaptation

I'm a bit baffled at the astonishment expressed in some quarters that Tim Burton shows a knack for the movie musical in "Sweeney Todd."

This is the same guy, after all, who made "The Nightmare Before Christmas," one of the best and most popular movie musicals of recent years - also a production whose visual style and palette is strikingly similar to "Sweeney Todd."

Burton's taste for the garish, macabre musical number (see also "The Corpse Bride") goes all the way back to the "Banana Boat" sequence in "Beetlejuice": Any guy who turns shrimp cocktail into grasping zombie fingers is, for my money, the right guy for this job.

In fact, it's no surprise to learn that Burton, as a student, fell in love with the power of drama watching "Sweeney Todd" performed on the London stage; he liked it so much he went back to see it three times, eagerly absorbing every minute in each three-hour production.

As a commercial filmmaker, of course, Burton knew he needed to cut about an hour of Stephen Sondheim's opus, while preserving its . . . heart? Maybe essence is a better word.

The shrewd Burton does not overstay his welcome in the sooty, nocturnal 18th-century London he's created for "Sweeney Todd," the setting for this darkly comic story of a barber (Johnny Depp) taking revenge for his false imprisonment and ruined life.

There are only two primary colors in the movie - one is the red of the blood that starts spurting at about the 60-minute mark, and doesn't stop. The other is the fantastic blue suit that Sacha Baron Cohen wears as Signor Pirelli, a charlatan/barber who's a rival to Todd and an obstacle to his goal of revenge.

Cohen is a scream in this role - he's become the anti-Streep, a connoisseur of outrageously bad accents who here butchers Italian (and is repaid in kind).

The major supporting players are uniformly good. Helena Bonham Carter captures the comic misanthropy of Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd's enabler and maker of tasty meat pies - maybe it's the human feet that kick it up a notch.

Alan Rickman is the haughty judge who frames Sweeney Todd in order to steal his wife, and he's typically loathsome. (Even more so is his henchman, Timothy Spall.)

The movie is ghoulish fun, and Burton makes a slew of adroit choices, but in a way its refinement misses the spirit of the piece. Versions of the story have played in London for a century, befitting its origin as a populist yarn about a wronged tradesman who feasts on upper-class swells.

Depp, though, is a rarefied superstar, whose celebrity grows from his posture as a hipster in perpetual exile. In his hands, the murders almost feel like some outgrowth of artistic privilege - like Edward Scissorhands with 007's accent and his license to kill.

I'll confess that my enjoyment of his role, of the movie as a whole, may be tempered by the fact that I couldn't hear it very well - I missed much of the dialogue.

Make sure to see it in a theater you know to have reliably good sound.

Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, John Logan; directed by Tim Burton; written by John Logan; music by Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler; distributed by DreamWorks/Warner Bros.