U.S. Release Date: December 22, 2004
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson
Running Time: 2 hours and 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (brief violent images)

A Little Night Music
by Scott Holleran

Delivering on its promise to capture composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage hit on screen, Joel Schumacher's movie version of The Phantom of the Opera is a lush spectacle with romantic moments—provided one likes the music. This delight is like listening to Andrea Bocelli; opera snobs would never approve—they never liked anything Mr. Lloyd Webber created for the stage—and the rest of this attention-deficit society isn't likely to sit still for what is admittedly a flawed two and a half hours of pop opera.

But in an age of drooling malcontents, this Warner Bros. affair is like an angel of music. Though much is wrong with The Phantom of the Opera, more is right, starting with the soft-focus photography, which evokes an old Paris postcard.

Beginning in black and white, each detail of the popular Broadway musical is recreated for the screen, from the auction, the musical monkey and the grandiose chandelier to the virile Phantom (Gerard Butler, sexing up the role), his mesmerized pupil Christine (Emmy Rossum, lovely to listen to), and her suitor, Raoul (dashing Patrick Wilson). The uninitiated can follow the story, which depicts a partly deformed man in a half-mask who's in love with a rising diva. The unrequited love theme resonates.

Everything looks grand. Schumacher downplays the original Gaston Leroux novel's horror aspect, which actually makes the Phantom's dirty deeds seem more jarring, in favor of dewy close-ups, romance on snowy rooftops and the score as an unbroken strand to show and tell. At times, camera angles and movements are tentative and stagy, and the dubbing can be a wreck in slow motion, but, for anyone with a beating heart, it's easy to get lost in the splendor. At a packed recent screening, you could practically hear a tear drop.

Though boxy and awkward for stretches, and less cinematic than Alan Parker's ambitious take on Mr. Lloyd Webber's Evita, the masked man is more plausibly alluring up close. The effect of seeing his face on screen is powerful, thanks to a fine performance by Butler, and it improves the story by making it less dependent on the climactic chandelier scene than the long-running musical. The Phantom entrances virginal Christine, whom he tutors with vocal lessons, while her childhood friend, heroic and handsome Raoul, re-enters her life as the opera's top patron. For Raoul, it's love at first sight when Christine takes the role designated for a shrill diva (Minnie Driver, at her most histrionic since The Governess), and young love hits a sour note with the Phantom. Without revealing the plot, the melodrama matches the stage version's highlights—a masquerade, a chandelier and a secret chamber—and Schumacher sticks to the script.

The Phantom gets a back story, the musical gets a new tune, "Learn to be Lonely" (nicely sung by Minnie Driver during the closing credits), and the mysterious Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) gets softer. It's no more a song and dance musical than it was on stage, and it is limited by Mr. Lloyd Webber's flashy production in some respects, reducing the movie to flamboyant set pieces, quick-cut swordplay and a story that doesn't translate to pictures. If taken literally, the whole thing is ridiculous.

But pointing out this extravagant production's flaws is easy picking, and it seems harsh when considering that the movie is not presented as anything but pop opera for the screen. With interesting characters and a sense of glamour, The Phantom of the Opera is a dark romantic fantasy as rich as silk and as melodic as a dandy pop tune. Like a visit to the penny arcade on a rainy afternoon, it is a welcome respite from the drudgery of movies without music.

DVD Notes
The main reason to buy the one-disc version of Phantom of the Opera is its 141 minutes of melodious music with dazzling pictures in widescreen format. Only the original theatrical trailer and French and Spanish subtitles are included. A two-disc version is also available.

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