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Originally published Wednesday, December 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM

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Review

"Phantom of the Opera": An elephant you won't soon forget

In an early scene in Joel Schumacher's film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, "The Phantom of the Opera," an enormous artificial elephant lumbers onto a Paris stage, as...

Seattle Times movie critic

In an early scene in Joel Schumacher's film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, "The Phantom of the Opera," an enormous artificial elephant lumbers onto a Paris stage, as part of an opera being rehearsed there. And that creature provides as apt a metaphor as any for Schumacher's movie: It's big, it's fake, it's overdone, it's kind of awkward. Then again, it's a pretty darned good elephant, and you find yourself admiring the thing anyway.

"Phantom of the Opera," the movie, can best be described as one hell of an elephant, lavishly staged, chunkily directed, marching determinedly on. Set in 1870 Paris and loosely based on Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel, it's the story of an innocent young soprano, Christine, and the mysterious "opera ghost" who haunts the theater where she is a chorus girl — and whose obsession with Christine causes him to clash with the man she loves, Raoul. The stage musical, awkwardly written but filled with Lloyd Webber's pretty faux-Puccini tunes and designed with great panache, premiered in London in 1986 and has since become a phenomenon; it's still going strong on both the West End and Broadway.


ALEX BAILEY / WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Emmy Rossum as object of obsession Christine and Gerard Butler as her pursuer, the Phantom.

Those fond of the stage version will find much to enjoy here, though it must be said that a rapidly descending chandelier holds far more menace in an actual theater than on a movie screen, where wonders take place daily (and where we can be reasonably certain that it won't land on top of us). Schumacher — who began his film career as a costume designer — lavishes attention here on costumes and sets. Clearly no expense was spared when it came to silk, lace, candles and hair extensions, and the result is gloriously over-the-top eye candy.

Alas, the candy for the ear is not quite so mellifluous. Emmy Rossum, with her enormous eyes and delicate soprano, makes a lovely, vulnerable Christine, and Patrick Wilson, smoldering in billowy white shirts, is effective as Raoul. But poor Gerard Butler, as the Phantom, spends the movie hiding his handsome face behind a mask and trying desperately to sound like a real singer. Butler's a fine actor (watch for him in the upcoming "Dear Frankie"), but he's lost here, and it's mystifying that Schumacher would cast a nonsinger in this difficult role. (All of the actors perform their own singing, except Minnie Driver, who flounces about amusingly as the out-of-control Italian diva Carlotta, sporting an accent as thick as spaghetti sauce.)

Opening today

**½
"The Phantom of the Opera,"
with Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Simon Callow, Ciaran Hinds. Directed by Joel Schumacher, from a screenplay by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Schumacher, based on the stage musical by Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief violent images. Several theaters.

Though a few additional dialogue scenes have been added (including one that explains, plausibly, the Phantom's history), and some of the clunkiest of the lyrics discreetly rephrased, "Phantom" the movie is remarkably close to "Phantom" the stage show in its emphasis of song over dialogue and style over substance. Schumacher understands that he's dealing with spectacle here and crams as much of it in as possible; many of the songs are staged with the singers walking nonstop, so as to show us more of the sets. It's not exactly subtle — you wonder if they were issued odometers — but then again, neither is the musical.


ALEX BAILEY / WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Simon Callow as Andre, Minnie Driver as Carlotta and Ciaran Hinds as Firmin in the musical drama "The Phantom of the Opera."

The film is framed by an elegant and surprisingly quiet black-and-white prologue (from the show) and epilogue (new for the movie), giving us a chance to rest our eyes before and after the tumult of color and noise that is Schumacher's "Phantom." At its best — in the lovely, lilting "Prima Donna," or the passionately sung "Point of No Return" (though it's strangely interrupted by what looks to be the cast of "Forever Tango") — it's a shamelessly over-the-top wallow in romantic obsession, and a thoroughly enjoyable one. Otherwise ... hmm, how did that elephant get in here?

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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