THE DVD SHELF: "Sweeney Todd," "Life After Tomorrow," Disney's "Enchanted" & "101 Dalmatians"

THE DVD SHELF: "Sweeney Todd," "Life After Tomorrow," Disney's "Enchanted" & "101 Dalmatians" This month's column discusses Tim Burton's version of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd"; the Annie-related "Life After Tomorrow"; the Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men"; and Disney's "Enchanted" and a restored animated "101 Dalmatians."
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We have already enthused, in our "On the Record" column, over Tim Burton's film version of what well may be Stephen Sondheim's finest, and certainly bloodiest, musical. Now comes the DVD of Sweeney Todd [Paramount]. The film was a mainstay of least year's "10 best" lists, and deservedly so; and aren't we — the theatre fans of Stephen Sondheim — thrilled to see him on all those "10 best" lists? Sweeney — as far as we are concerned — is near the top of the list of Broadway's best, after all.

What Mr. Burton and his associates have done is — well, precisely what people should do when translating a stage musical to the screen. They have adapted it, rather than filmed it. Burton, yes, has seen fit to cut a wide swath of that golden score; those that want can lament and wail, label him a dastardly "Tim Scissorhands," and work themselves into such a state that they'll miss out on the enjoyment of what is a superb, cinematic treat. If you don't mind gushers of blood, that is. Johnny Depp is not a stage-worthy Sweeney, but he is just dandy on film. (Put Len Cariou, George Hearn, Stokes Mitchell or Cerveris in this role and I don't think we'd see Sweeney on the screen.) Helena Bonham Carter, too, is a different Lovett than your favorite Lovett; but it is unprofitable to compare stage and screen versions, and stage and screen performances.

Keep in mind that this is only the third musical composed by Sondheim to have made it to the big screen. The first two were so bollixed up — A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A Little Night Music — that they managed to make just about everyone involved look bad. There are PBS filmings of several Sondheim musicals, yes, and they make a remarkable record of the events in question; but there is a difference between translating a property to film, on the one hand, and setting up a few cameras and zooming in and out on the other. The movie "Sweeney Todd" looks like it is supposed to be a movie, and it is a fine one (and a visual treat as well). Paramount has offered us both a single and double DVD; the latter offers 13 bonuses, which — given the prominence of the film, the artists and the studio (Dreamworks) — are top of the line. So fans of Sondheim and Sweeney now have yet another slipcase to slip onto their shelves.

* The sun will come out tomorrow, or so the song says. But what of the spotlight? And on that tomorrow, will there be a place in which you can sing that the sun will come out once more? These questions are examined, rather grippingly, by Julie Stevens and Gil Cates, Jr. in Life After Tomorrow [Arts Alliance America]. What happened to all those girls who appeared in the original and spinoff productions of Annie, anyway? Annie had six pals, otherwise known as The Orphans. Given the number of companies of Annie that trod the boards, and the growth spurts that biologically limited the girls' term of usability, there were an awful lot of child actors that went in and out of what was arguably the second-biggest hit of its decade (after A Chorus Line). And when I refer to an awful lot, I am not speaking of the mothers — although I suppose I could.

There you are, starring on Broadway or in major cities across the nation at the age of 11. (The orphans weren't starring but they were often treated as minor celebrities, especially in those cities where Annie came in like a whirlwind for a sold-out month or so.) Any actor can tell you of the lows that set in when you are not working; any star can tell you of the lows when you are no longer starring. But most actors, after closing, retain those traits that earned them the spotlight. The child actor, who is hired because of their size and their looks and the sound of their pre-teen voice, not only loses their job; they lose those abilities that got them cast in the first place. Those abilities that made them into celebrities, at least in the cases of the Girls Who Played Annie. Once they have hung up their red wig, how many people know or care who they were? Or are? And how do you think it feels when you go back to public school, floating anonymously in a sea of hundreds of kids without a chorus or a dresser or even an assistant stage manager to tell you when it's time to enter and smile?

Filmmaker Julie Stevens was one of those orphans. Musing on the question of what comes after tomorrow, and what doesn't come after tomorrow, she had the idea of interviewing a group of the girls to see just how common their experiences were. The results are fascinating, especially — I suppose — to people who are in or around the business. Only a small number of the girls are present, relatively speaking. The biggest catch would have been the original, Tony Award-nominated Annie, Andrea McArdle; she presumably declined to participate. In her place, though, is Kristen Vigard, who originated the role the summer before Broadway when the show was first performed at the Goodspeed Opera House in 1976. (She was very good, too, both as Annie and singing "Frank Mills" as a 14-year-old Crissy in the 1977 Broadway revival of Hair). More to the point, Stevens landed an extended interview with the only one of the Annies who went on to more fame after Annie than during — Sarah Jessica Parker, who offers some of the most insightful comments of the group. Also prominent amongst the participants are Allison Smith, another leader of the Broadway clan; Danielle Brisebois, who will remain ever memorable as the cutest and littlest orphan to anyone who saw the show early on; music director Peter Howard; stage manager Peter Lawrence; and composer Charles Strouse.

What do the girls talk about? A wide range of subjects, many of which are fascinating. Some of the girls-turned-women seem normal, others seem to be a little strange; one gets the impression that Stevens purposely kept out some of the sadder stories. But many of the girls share similar tales, with broken families — especially among the touring girls — in the forefront (with a residue of guilt). But see for yourself. This film is not about Annie, not at all. It's about life upon the wicked stage, circa 1977-1982, and "Life After Tomorrow" paints quite a picture thereof.

The folks at Disney at some point seemed to have borrowed their various animated heroines and joined them together into a product line of their own. The Princesses is the name they go by, and if you have a girl child you are likely to have come across this team on T-shirts, lunchboxes, umbrellas, bedsheets and more. Someone at Disney recently seems to have had the brave notion of taking these Princesses, creating a half-sister under the name of Giselle, and ribbing the heck out of 'em in a new film, Enchanted [Disney]. Perhaps it was simply the right time and place, because the results are — well — totally enchanting.

Kevin Lima's film mixes live actors with animation, which is certainly a component of this movie's success. But that has been done before, on and off, since Jerry (a mouse) danced with Gene Kelly in 1945 in "Anchors Aweigh." "Enchanted" also mixes fairy tale-style romance with good old 21st-century fun, with an emphasis on offbeat humor. Thus, wildly funny images bombard us while we watch. Giselle is transplanted from fantasyland to the Upper West Side, turning the whole thing into a witty and knowing "Snow White of Riverside Drive." This Giselle is played by a girl named Amy Adams, a Julie Andrews-type who has musical comedy written all over her unless she is in the meantime swallowed up by Hollywood. James Marsden plays her love interest — the Prince Charming love interest, anyway, and gets to do some singing as well; Patrick Dempsey is the true love interest, the one who gets the girl. Susan Sarandon plays the evil stepmother, with a poison apple and plenty of relish.

Along with the contemporary humor come five musical comedy-style songs from Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, a pair who know just how to do it and pretty much outdo themselves with "True Love's Kiss," "Happy Working Song" and "That's How You Know." The latter is sung during a stroll through Central Park; prominent amongst the geriatrics on the bench who get up and dance — center screen — is our own Harvey Evans, who danced for Fosse 50 years ago and does very nicely indeed. As an added inside-joke-of-a-bonus, Disney includes the actresses who voiced Ariel (Jodi Benson), Pocahontas (Judy Kuhn) and Belle (Paige O'Hara) in cameo roles. Julie Poppins Andrews is there, too. The result is a kid's movie for adults, a Disney family movie with enough sly fun for those on the lookout for sly fun.

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With Ethan Coen's Almost an Evening transferring from the Atlantic to a commercial run at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker Off-Broadway, the playwright had the good sense last month to boost publicity by nabbing three Oscars. The movie in question, co-written and co-directed with Coen's brother Joel (and co-produced by the pair, with the estimable Scott Rudin), is called No Country for Old Men [Miramax]. Filled with full-screen blood and gore, it is also filled with brilliant images — both verbal and visual — and enough enigmas to keep you talking for weeks after viewing it. "No Country for Old Men" has now appeared on DVD, just in time to sell in the theatre lobby. Would that every first-time Off-Broadway playwright were so accommodating. The film is bolstered by a trio of stunning performances, from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem (the latter in a turn that can only be called astonishing, with a featured actor Oscar to prove it). But it is the magic of the Coens that makes "No Country for Old Men" absolutely mesmerizing.

* Highly watchable in a rather different genre comes 101 Dalmatians [Disney], the 1961 Disney opus. Yes, this was remade in 1996 with live actors, most notably including Glenn Close as the villainess. The animated version, however, is surprisingly good. The animation is relatively primitive, by Disney standards; due to financial problems compounded by the poor showing of their prior effort, "Sleeping Beauty," it was necessary to switch to a less expensive process. This makes the film look more like Saturday morning TV than — well, Disney. But this also gives "Dalmatians" — not about some prince or king in some foreign land, but an average (?) London couple with a couple of dogs — a certain homespun charm, if your idea of homespun includes nine puppies. Or 99 puppies. Will the people at Disney one day take this property and turn it into a Broadway stage musical? Not very likely, as the major characters are — after all — animated animals. However, Disney-on-Broadway has given us lions and hyenas, mermaid, crabs and talking teapots. "Dalmatians" does have at least one fascinating leading lady character, in the person of Cruella De Vil; the film also has a jazzy musical score, although only two songs remained in the released version. (Three more are included among the bonuses on this spiffy, "Platinum Edition" two-DVD set.) So who's to say?

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)