The Phantom of the Opera (1987)

     directed by Al Guest and Jean Mathieson

          starring Alden Grennel, Daniel Reardon and Collette

            Proctor

This film polarizes its audience. On one side, you have people who love it unrelentingly because it is without a doubt the closest adaptation to Leroux's original novel that you will find in film to date; and on the other side, you have people who don't want to believe that animation and voice acting this flawed were ever inflicted on the general public.

 

For 1987, it's nothing mind-blowing, but it's pretty standard for a small production studio (Disney this is not); they didn't have computer rendering or a team of fifty animators working on character designs. Instead, they had seven animating guys and about that number more painting backgrounds. Ah, the olden days. I'm inclined to cut Emerald City Productions some slack here; my love of old, moldy things is well-documented, and I've never had much patience for the argument that things with less-than-stellar graphics or technology aren't enjoyable. I prefered the puppets of the original Star Wars to the computer-generated critters of the later ones, for example. Back off my nineties video games and step off my crappy Rankin/Bass-style animation.

 

Emerald City Productions, Ltd., is basically defunct now (sadly, there appear to have been legal difficulties near the end of its life), but when they were functioning, they put out an impressive array of titles, most of them drawn from classic literature - Les Miserables, Oliver Twist, Around the World in 80 Days, etc. The detractors do have a point, however - the animation is extremely simplistic, relying heavily on reused frames, painted backgrounds that do not move, and jerky movement that indicates a bare-bones number of cels used. Likewise, while some of the voice acting is fine (nothing to get too excited over, but fine), some of it is... well, pretty wooden. So we've established that the presentation is some kind of C grade at best; they try, but the whole thing gives off that air of some dudes in a basement doing all the voices and art themselves and subsisting on pizza while they complete their labor of love.

 

As I said, I happen to love older animation. This is very stylized, and while the moving characters are sort of despressingly marionette-like, the painted backgrounds are gorgeous and very effective at conveying a sense of faded grandeur in the opera house, and suggesting barely-concealed terror in the cellars beneath it. But just because I love it doesn't mean it's good. (Sometimes, I love things specifically because they're not good.)

 

What elevates this movie despite its obvious production problems is that it's the only original movie adaptation so far that actually retains Leroux's theme of redemption through love. Since most movie versions choose the horror route, the Phantom generally dies at the end, usually so that Christine and Raoul can escape and go make pretty babies somewhere or something. When you're making your villain as villainous as possible in order to terrify the audience, you tend to make him somewhat irredeemable (the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, for example, or the 1943 Lubin/Rains version); and even the versions that have more sympathy for the Phantom's plight, like the 1962 Fisher/Lom or the 1983 Markowitz/Schell, generally portray him as too far gone in madness to be saved, meaning that all of those films fail to allow the Phantom his final redemption. This version not only allows him his final act of selflessness, but actually intensifies it; where Leroux's Phantom forces Christine to remain with him and only lets her go after Raoul has left and he realizes that she would have kept her word, this version of Erik lets her leave with Raoul as soon as he sees how unhappy she is. This is probably more out of a need for expediency - the film isn't even an hour long - than out of a desire to give Erik's character any further nobility, but it's effective enough anyway.

 

This little cartoon film lists Gaston Leroux as their main writer, and they're not lying. Aside from a rather bewildering time change to 1890 (what's so wrong with 1881, people? Why the hate?), the plot and characters are virtually identical to those of the original novel. Raoul and Christine (who have already re-met one another to speed things up) pay attention to social conventions of the time, for one thing - the scene wherein Christine's chaperone tells Raoul to bugger off made me giggle - and the opera house itself is mainly the same as the original novel describes it. There are some omissions, again mostly in the name of speeding things along: Carlotta is almost entirely omitted (we never see her, just hear that she's indisposed and that Christine will be singing instead), the graveyard scene is removed (more about that later), and the incidental characters (Madame Giry, Jammes, La Sorelli, Meg, Mama Valerius, Philippe, etc.) are entirely absent as well.

 

The Phantom's lifelong work in the form of Don Juan is never explicitly mentioned, but he does mock Christine by saying that he is "a sort of Don Juan, you know," and it also seems pretty clear that that's what's being played in the final scene. Many lines are direct paraphrases from Leroux's novel, including Erik's insistence that if Christine just loved him, he wouldn't be evil any longer (actually, pretty much everything out of Erik's mouth is a direct paraphrase from the novel... I'm having trouble finding original lines for him now that I think about it). And, of course, the daroga makes his first film appearance in... ever, actually, since even in the 1925 movie he was rewritten as a captain of the French police.

 

The film's most obvious influence, aside from the Leroux novel itself, is the 1925 Julian/Chaney film. Many backgrounds seem to be painted versions of the sets from the silent film; the stairs into the cellar, in particular, are almost identical to the original sets. And Erik's face, of course, recalls nothing so much as Chaney's famous makeup job, down to the coloring and hair. Christine is mysteriously brunette, and in fact resembles Mary Philbin more than a little bit, while Raoul is a dead ringer for Norman Kerry; the character studies were obviously based on the 1925 actors.

 

The music is excellent, being mostly original compositions by celebrated Irish composer Gerard Victory, all performed by the Kurt Graunke Orchestra of Munich - with, of course, music from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette performed by the famous Irish soprano Virginia Kerr (at least, according to the credits, though I can find no mention of it anywhere on her website or any biography pages out there - perhaps she wants to forget about that particular contribution of hers).

 

An interesting choice, which was probably an effort to keep the film inoffensive enough for children (and their overprotective parents), was the removal of all religious references from the text. Not that Leroux's novel is brimming with religious iconography and prayer (unless you're reading into it enough to get the Christ metaphor), but references are there if you're paying attention, and they have all been removed. One of the biggest changes is that Christine is now performing in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette instead of the religiously-laden, doomful Faust; the change completely removes the parallel metaphor provided by the opera in context with the happenings behind the scenes, but it's not too difficult to understand why the filmmakers felt that a drama about a man trading his soul to the devil might be a little too adult for their target audience.

 

Another major substitution is Christine's insistence that Erik is the "Spirit of Music"; by making him a neutral "spirit" who could be from any storybook or mythos, the religiously-connoted "angel" is no longer necessary, though again the novel's contrasts between metaphorical angels and devils are sadly absent (her devoted belief in the "spirit" is somewhat less believable because of the loss of this religious element, but for a child audience, it isn't that great a stretch). Lines with religious connotation are also changed: for example, Christine tells Erik that she gave him "everything" when she sang, rather than giving him "her soul" as in the original line.

 

Now, this is all well and good until the very end of the film; I'm coasting along and then the daroga says, in the very last line of the entire movie as they observe the remains of Erik's house under the opera, "Maybe God will pity him now." Hold the phone. Didn't we just spend the last fifty minutes or so studiously avoiding anything having to do with God and religion? I was mystified by this choice until, after listening to me argue myself in circles for ten minutes, John looked up from playing with the cats and said, "Of course he's allowed to say it. He's the Persian." And I think he's right. The daroga is treated as an outsider by default, and although no one ever explicitly refers to his religion, the implication that as a turban-wearing Middle-Eastern man he is most likely Muslim is likely enough for the creators to allow him the line since it doesn't count as a "real" religious reference.  Raoul, Christine, and Erik can't say anything that could be construed as trying to brainwash the kiddies, but the daroga can do whatever he wants, because the viewers will probably ignore him, or just assume it's one of those things "those kinds of people" do.  It's a sad thing that he (and his race and religion with him, by extension) is so pigeonholed, but it's not super surprising in a 1980s film for children produced in a heavily Catholic country.

 

It's worth noting that while the element of motherlessness (and concomitant longing for a mother) is still present here in Erik's references to his mother, there is no corresponding father imagery, which is a major change from the complex layers of paternal love going on in the original novel. Christine's parents are never mentioned, and the entire element of Erik impersonating her dead father's dying wishes is accordingly excised; in fact, they make a point to state that her visits from the "spirit" have only begun very recently, removing any doubt as to whether or not he has been "fathering" her on the sly (though Christine's breakdown upon discovering that Erik is actually a man and not a "spirit" is included, which makes me happy because it ties in the idea of loss of childhood innocence, another big part of the novel). The use of Christine as a mother figure here is also omitted, even by implication; she's far too headstrong and self-concerned to function as selflessly as Leroux's Christine did (though she bears quite a resemblance to the Christine in the 1925 movie, which is probably a greater influencing factor on her personality). The filmmakers probably felt that all these Electra/Oedipus complexes would go over childrens' heads, and be inappropriate besides, which I can hardly fault them for.

 

Raoul's character is somewhat more abrasive to match Christine's new feistiness; probably in an attempt to make his actions make a little more sense to a child audience, he is far more inclined to stomp around and shout when he believes she might be betraying him than to burst into tears as the original Raoul was prone to doing. Erik is pretty faithful to his original source material, but he does suffer from a certain cartoony villainishness added to help the kiddies peg him as the bad guy - an annoying tendency to laugh evilly at his own cleverness, for example, seems somewhat unnecessary. But an excellent job is done in keeping him balanced between danger and positivity, between being frightening and being pitiable.

 

A side note that doesn't matter: Raoul's Harlequin costume is hilarious, not to mention completely failing to serve its purpose (remember when Christine said, "Make sure you can't be recognized"? A teeny weeny domino mask isn't going to do it). And when Christine shows up in a skin-tight Columbine costume... scandal! Doesn't she want to leave something to the mens' imaginations? Oh, the horror.

 

Also, when the daroga bursts in and Raoul shouts in a manful and wrathful way, "You! ...who are you?", I about died laughing. Priceless comedy is best when it's unintentional.

 

Basically, what it all boils down to is a shortened, expurgated version of Leroux's novel, watered down slightly for childrens' palates and seasoned with a dash of Lon Chaney. It suffers from an extremely rushed pace as Guest and Mathieson attempt to fit all the relevant action into just over fifty minutes of animation, but for a child audience, again, the breakneck pace is enjoyable (Leroux's original pacing would have seen them quickly getting bored and wandering off). The removal of most of the horror elements (Erik kills one person, offscreen, and we never see the body) and greater metaphors waters down the story's impact considerably for an adult, but there's enough suspense and interest left over to keep a child entertained, which is, after all, what it was intended to do.

 

This was not a successful interpretation at all. The animation style was mostly eclipsed by big name studios like Disney and Don Bluth, and the sets were too creepy and intense for many children besides. Erik, as a non-traditional villain, was confusing to many, and even with all the cuts and sped-up pacing, there just wasn't enough action in Leroux's story to keep many children entertained. It was quickly relegated to the bargain video bin, never to be searched out again except by devoted fans of the story (and, apparently, me). Which is a shame, because it's exactly the kind of weird, interesting animation that I loved as a kid, and at least it has a good message for children: you can't force other people to do what you want them to, and selflessness is far preferable to selfishness.

 

I wish I could grade it higher (it's really, really not A material), but for a film that finally keeps that greatest theme of the original novel - personal growth and redemption for Erik, who finally finds love and in doing so must let it go in order to retain his newfound humanity - and for a serious amount of effort and an obvious respect for the source material, I'm happy to place it at a B.

All content © 2007-2020 Anne Myers

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