They say timing is everything in Hollywood, and that was certainly true for the 2004 film adaptation of the Broadway smash 'The Phantom of the Opera.' First produced for the stage in 1986, it took nearly twenty years for the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical extravaganza to hit the big screen, long after the play had first captured the cultural zeitgeist. Produced on a lavish budget of over $70 million, the film barely scraped $50 million in domestic box office receipts, disappearing to video stores as quickly as it faded out of the public's consciousness.
Perhaps things would have been different had 'Phantom' hit theaters a decade ago, when its sensibilities were a bit more in vogue. On stage, it was one of Broadway's hottest tickets in the '80s and early '90s, but its appeal has since been diminished by weak touring company productions, and its sales usurped by far hipper, post-modern stage smashes as 'Hairspray,' 'Avenue Q' and the unstoppable kitsch of 'Mamma Mia.' 'Phantom' was already a dated anachronism by the dawn of the new millennium, which made a big-screen version about as commercially appealing as a hip-hop 'Cats.'
For those unfamiliar with the story of 'The Phantom of the Opera,' it has been told and retold so many times it almost seems like a fairy tale, not based on the famous book by Gaston LeRoux. The Phantom (here played by Gerald Butler) is a disfigured musical genius, who lives hidden deep within the bowels of the Paris Opera House. Soon a young musical sensation, Christine (Emmy Rossum) becomes the Opera House's new star, and the Phantom is bewitched. Becoming his unwitting protege, he soon terrorizes the opera company to woo the love of his life. Needless to say, romantic tragedy ensues.
Sticking more or less faithfully to both the original source material as well as the Webber-Rice play, the movie version of 'Phantom' is a handsome, earnest, lively film. Director Joel ('Lost Boys,' 'St. Elmo's Fire') Schumacher would not seem to be the most likely candidate to helm a big-screen version of 'Phantom,' but Schumacher has never been an ironic filmmaker. He plays the material absolutely straight, which probably doomed the film commercially, but gives it a timeless feel lacking in far more clever if instantly dated modern musicals like 'Moulin Rouge' and 'Chicago.'
Indeed, as I watched 'Phantom,' I had to constantly remind myself what decade I was in. By 30 minutes into the film, when Christine takes her famous descent into the bowels of the Opera House with the Phantom by way of gondola, I felt like I had stepped into some weird musical mishmash of a big-hair '80s Heart video and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Funny, campy, cringe-inducing yet strangely endearing all at once, this 'Phantom' absolutely refuses to so much bat an eyelash in the direction of hip irony. That makes it cheesy to the extreme, but oddly captivating -- though perhaps not in the way intended.
Admittedly, I am probably not the target audience for the sappy sentiment of 'Phantom.' Nor I am much a fan of Webber's musical style, a sort of pop-opera mash-up that occasionally produces a nice tune (the title theme of 'Phantom' has a great, devilish bass line it is impossible not to tap your foot to), but more often than not revels in Disney-esque blandness. But despite all that, even I found myself roped in by the end of the film's 142 minutes. Perhaps that is more a tribute more to the power of LeRoux's original creation than Schumacher's penchant overblown theatrics, but I genuinely cared what happened to Christine and the Phantom. I can't say I shed any real tears by the time of the film's predictable, tragic climax (really, do I need to tell you what happens?), but it did kinda make me glad that earnest, sincere romantic films are still being made in Hollywood. Even if no one is going to see them anymore.
My surprise enjoyment of 'Phantom of the Opera' continued with the film's impressive picture. I would even venture to say that of all the initial HD DVD titles I have reviewed thus far, 'Phantom' has produced some of the most striking images. I don't know if I've ever described a video transfer as "delicate" before, but that is exactly the trick 'Phantom' pulls off here, perfectly straddling the line between technical razzle-dazzle and a palpable sense of reality.
A lavish, sumptuously-mounted film, 'Phantom' is certainly overflowing with color, texture and subtle lighting, which quite frankly got lost even on the fine-looking standard DVD released last year. But not here. Quite frankly, my direct comparison between the HD DVD and standard DVDs of 'Phantom' was no contest -- the HD DVD blew it out of the water. On a good home theater setup, it is would be hard for anyone to say HD DVD doesn't offer a considerable improvement over standard DVD, at least with 'Phantom' as your demo material.
Based on the usual approach to transfers of films such as this in the past, I expected 'Phantom's vibrant reds, oranges and midnight blues to be pumped up to oblivion, with all the characters looking not so much as they have been lit with light, but painted with day-glo colors. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by how much detail there on the HD DVD transfer. From the fine textures of the actor's skin in close-up to the most minute costume design details, I was often blown away by how terrific the image looked. Depth is incredibly three-dimensional in just about every scene, so much so that I'd say there are select shots here that rival the best video I've ever seen on any consumer format.
What also pushes 'Phantom' into the realm of true HD demo material is that, unlike Warner's other initial HD DVD launch title, 'The Last Samurai,' it is almost completely lacking in film grain. As good as 'Samurai' looks, it was shot using the Super 35 process, which produces a bit of grain in the image, which often comes across as noise on video. But 'Phantom's images are so smooth and free of any apparent imperfections that I almost couldn't believe it wasn't some new sort of CGI enhancement. (Maybe it is?) But however they did it, this film looks absolutely smashing, and is certainly worth watching just to see how good a HD DVD disc can look.
When I first reviewed 'The Phantom of the Opera' on HD DVD back in April 2006, I mentioned that listening to the film on the next-gen format was a bit of a bummer. Knowing that there was a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack encoded on the disc but that I couldn't gain access to it (since the first-gen Toshiba HD-A1 players had yet to support the format) was quite frustrating. But now that TrueHD is finally here (see my recent Spotlight report on the arrival of the format and how you can upgrade your player to hear it), that's all moot. This is the second TrueHD-encoded HD DVD title I've reviewed (after 'Training Day') and I continue to be impressed by the noticeable improvement in audio quality it offers.
First, a few notes regarding how I went about comparing the Dolby TrueHD to the Dolby Digital tracks on the disc. To access the TrueHD track on 'Phantom,' I decided to skip HDMI and use the analog outputs on my Toshiba HD-XA1 and feed them directly into my receiver's analog inputs. I'm currently using the Denon AVR-1803 A/V Dolby Digital/DTS Surround Processor, but I also invested in a new Panasonic SA-XR57S Home Theater Receiver just this past week. Probably the cheapest receiver currently on the market that can handle Dolby TrueHD, the Panasonic is a solid little receiver that gave me an idea of how the format could sound on the kind of equipment more likely within reach of the average consumer. Note, however, that regardless of what equipment you are using and how you are connecting it, be absolutely sure to visit the "Setup" menu of your Toshiba HD DVD player and turn the "Dialogue Enhancement" feature to "Off." If you don't, it will pretty much ruin your Dolby TrueHD experience, and the best way to appreciate the benefits the format offers is by disenabling all artificial processing in your audio chain.
With the setup out of the way, it was time to fire up 'The Phantom of the Opera.' And after a bit of level matching (like most of Warner's early HD DVD titles, volume is encoded considerably low, so you'll have to turn your audio up about 15db to compensate) and watching just one scene, it was clear this was another easy winner for Dolby TrueHD. I found the differences to be similar to my experience with 'Training Day,' with an improvement in audio quality that is largely incremental, at times pronounced, but noticeable regardless.
The first scene I A/B'd (both on the Denon and the Panasonic) was Christine's trip through the underground canals to the lair of the Phantom, and of course the famous theme song that accompanies her journey. Here, the improvements with Dolby TrueHD were quite significant. Readily apparent was the improved spaciousness to the music. The impeccable vocal performances were warmer, with subtle variations in tone clearer on the TrueHD. Bass was also stronger -- I don't think I've ever heard low frequencies as consistently powerful, tight and refined coming out of my speakers before, on any format -- at least on my setup.
I next compared 'The Phantom of the Opera's big setpiece scene -- the chandelier crash -- and it now boasts some of the best envelopment I've yet experienced on HD DVD. Like 'Training Day,' I was also really impressed with the strength and purity of the surrounds. I really believe this is the best aspect of Dolby TrueHD for me. While audiophiles have long been used to sounds filling up the rear channels, quite frankly effects are usually pretty easy to localize -- we listen as a sound 'ping-pongs" from one speaker to the next, and it sounds kinda obvious. But at least with 'Phantom,' the Dolby TrueHD produced a much more immersive "wall of sound" effect in the rears. I was amazed that I often couldn't pinpoint exactly where the heck a sound was coming from -- it was glorious! I know, I know, a total geek moment, but like a kid with a new toy, I seriously had a couple of deja vu moments, as if I was hearing Dolby Digital 5.1 at home for the first time -- remember when you couldn't believe you were actually getting sound to come from behind your couch? Very exciting stuff!
And even on the Panasonic, all of these improvements were noticeable. The sense of fullness and heft of presence was always just a bit better on the Dolby TrueHD. Granted, the better your equipment, the better your experience with Dolby TrueHD is going to be. But if my comparison is anything to go by, it certainly earns big points for TrueHD -- if I could detect such obvious differences on a cheap $300 receiver, that bodes well for HD DVD as a mainstream, commercial format that can deliver high-quality audio to the masses at an affordable price.
However, despite how good Dolby TrueHD can sound, don't fret too much if you still don't have a receiver capable of producing the format. Indeed, even if you have to had to "settle" for the plain old 5.1 Dolby Digital-Plus track also included on the disc it's still a terrific mix. The filmmakers spared no expense in bringing 'Phantom's songtrack to life, as well they should -- it is the heart of any musical. Dynamic range here is superb for Dolby Digital, wonderfully reproducing every last musical nuance. The midrange and high-end is very evocative in conveying the film's operatic musical moment, lending a you-are-there quality that is up there with the best I've heard in a home theater. I also like the way the score was balanced in the surrounds, with select instruments spread subtlety across the rear speakers, but not overtly so, which ensures the soundtrack doesn't become too gimmicky and distract from the story being told. Bass response is also excellent throughout, with some heavy low tones really giving the music a heft and oomph in the darkest moments. Certainly, go with the TrueHD if you can, but 'The Phantom of the Opera' still sounds great no matter which way you slice it.
Another straight-from-standard DVD port, most -- but not all -- of the extras from that disc are included here, so should be nothing new to 'Phantom' fanatics. They also aren't particularly in-depth or illuminating, as the previous standard DVD release seemed a bit like a stop-gap release for fans while they waited for the inevitable double dip.
First up is the best extra, the 65-minute "Behind the Mask: The Story of the Phantom of the Opera" documentary. Perhaps I found this one most interesting simply because it was less about the film itself than its long journey to the screen. It also includes a then-new 2004 interview with Andrew Lloyd Webber, making it the only must-watch on the disc for 'Phantom' fans.
Up next are three shorter movie making-of featurettes that, when combined, form a complete "The Making of the Phantom of the Opera" overview: "Origins and Casting of the Phantom of the Opera" (12 minutes); "Designing the Phantom of the Opera" (11 minutes) and "Supporting Cast and Recording the Album of the Phantom of the Opera" (17 minutes). All are self-explanatory and pretty good stuff, though the "Designing" segment the most interesting to me. It showcases the extensive miniature work in the film, which is a welcome respite from today's tendency to create everything with CGI. The "Recording the Album" bit is also fun, especially to hear how beautiful some of the vocal talent sounded even without extensive production and studio trickery.
Rounding out the set is one additional song, "No One Would Listen," which is a pretty syrupy ballad sung by the Phantom. Can't say that I missed it much, but kudos to Warner for presenting here in full 1080p video -- it looks great. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer, as well as a cute "Cast & Crew Sing-A-Long" outtake, featuring tone-deaf renditions of the film's title song. Charming.
One final note about these extras. Unlike the other two initial Warner HD DVD titles, the supplements here are presented in HD's native 16x9 aspect ratio. Though only encoded as 480i video, it is still nice to be able to see the extras in full widescreen. Hopefully this is a sign of better things to come.
I was very impressed with 'Phantom of the Opera.' Whatever you think of the feature film aside, I thought it boasted the most impressive video and audio quality of any of the initial HD DVD disc offerings. And with its Dolby TrueHD track, it certainly marks the beginning of a new era in the kind of high-quality audio never before thought possible in a home theater environment. Warner's standardized, interactive navigation system is also very exciting, and only a hint at what is likely to come in the way of exclusive bonus HD content. A very fine initial effort from Warner.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.