Burton and Depp Dip Into Darkness ... Again 

This Sweeney Todd loses a bit of Sondheim's magic

Blood drips everywhere in the opening moments of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, setting the stage for a macabre musical that's equal parts serious, funny, campy and scary. What it's not is energetic: director Tim Burton gamely tries to capture the spirit of Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning Broadway production, but the mediocre singing and sluggish plotting make the audacious effort a bit underwhelming.

If you didn't know that nearly every line in the 116-minute movie is sung—and you wouldn't if you've only seen the misleading trailer—you're in for quite a surprise. Returning to London after 15 years in exile, Sweeney (Johnny Depp) tells young Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) the story of a young barber whose beautiful wife and child were taken from him by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman).

It doesn't take long for Sweeney to be outted as the spurned barber by Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who runs a pie shop below what used to be Sweeney's barber shop. Lovett tells Sweeney his wife was poisoned and his daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), is now the ward of Turpin and his stooge assistant, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall). Sweeney then vows revenge on the society that's wronged him and begins to slit the throats of unwitting patrons with his shaving blade. His first victim is a rival barber named Signor Adolfo Pirelli, who's played by Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) in a bit of inspired casting.

Although this isn't a song-and-dance musical like Hairspray, the challenges of Sondheim's difficult work (rhythms and beats change on a whim) remind us that we never actually wanted to know if anyone in this cast could sing. Depp, with a Bride of Frankenstein streak of white in his hair to accompany his dour demeanor, has a flat, limited voice that's just barely passable. He's not quite talk-singing, but at certain times—like in "Epiphany," in which he really needs to capture a powerful, revealing moment for Sweeney—his voice isn't strong enough to get us to feel the emotion of the moment.

It's supporting players Wisener and Bower who have the real voices: note Bower's "Johanna" and Wisener's touching "Green Finch and Linnett Bird," and how the high notes are reached with elegance rather than strain. This is not to say that Carter, Rickman and Spall don't sing in tune; Carter makes "The Worst Pies in London" good cheeky fun, and Rickman finds a creepy sweetness in his version of "Johanna," but their voices clearly lack range and octaves.

Burton's trademark darkened-yet-highly stylized atmosphere fits the movie perfectly, as does all the muck and grime on the Victorian costumes. But looking right is not enough, and once again Burton has failed to get us emotionally involved with his characters; the only time he's truly succeeded in this regard was Big Fish (2003).

This is the sixth collaboration between Burton and Depp, and it's neither the best (Edward Scissorhands) nor the worst (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) of their joint efforts. Yes, the doom-and-gloom of Sweeney Todd is perfect for their repertoire, but by film's end you'll be hoping neither man makes a musical again.

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