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Les Miserables (2012)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/22/2013

All Ratings out of
Audio: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/22/2013

Do you like musicals? I've always been on the fence about this genre. I mean, I love movies and I love music, but I don't think that they always gel. While I have no problem suspending my disbelief for most films, I still have issues with the fact that are supposed to buy the fact that a group of people will suddenly start singing the same song and dancing to perfect choreography. Of course, the key to any music is the music itself and the ones which I truly like -- Grease (my all-time favorite), Rent, Beauty and the Beast-- have great songs. If a musical can offer good songs and an interesting story, I can usually set aside my griping over how unrealistic it all is. So, it was with a sense of hope that I approached Les Miserables, a film based on one of the most popular stage productions of the past 25 years.

Les Miserables takes place in 19th Century France. As the story opens, we meet Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who is treated as a slave and overseen by the cruel Javert (Russell Crowe). However, having served his sentence (for stealing bread), Jean Valjean is released. But, as he's labeled as an ex-convict, he has trouble finding work. Finally, a kind priest takes pity on him and helps Jean to become financially stable. The story then leaps ahead a few years. Jean Valjean is the mayor of a town and a prominent businessman. When it's discovered that one of his workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), also works as a prostitute, she is fired. Condemned to the streets, Fantine sells her hair and her teeth to get by and becomes terminally ill. On her deathbed, she is visited by Jean Valjean, who promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette. The story then leaps ahead again. Due to his fear that his real identity will be discovered, Jean and Cosette (Amand Seyfried) have moved around a lot. The Revolution is gaining momentum and Cosette meets a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). As the streets run red with blood, young love blossoms. Jean feels that he must intervene, but realizes that he has more pressing matter when Javert comes to town.

When it comes to musicals, I know most from their movie adaptations. However, there are some musicals whose songs have penetrated the zeitgeist and become familiar to the public such as "Defying Gravity" from Wicked, and "Memory" from Cats. When Les Miserables was announced and began to gather buzz, I told my wife that I wasn't familiar with any of the songs from the stage version. Her reply was, "Yes, you are.", which didn't help. When Susan Boyle became famous for singing "I Dreamed a Dream", I didn't realize that the song was from Les Miserables. So, I went into the film hoping that the music would impress as it had with other stage-to-screen adaptations like Rent and Phantom of the Opera.

Well, it didn't. The mark of a good musical is that when it's done, you find yourself humming the songs, or scrambling to find somewhere to purchase the soundtrack. This did not happen with Les Miserables. In fact, I'm not sure if I could hum the songs, as most of them were meandering and tuneless. Other than "I Dreamed a Dream", which is easily the most memorable song in the movie, most of the songs have melody, but no real rhythm, and many of them are indistinguishable from one another. "Red and Black" sounds like a rip-off of "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music and "Master of the House" is the perfect excuse to go to the bathroom. The songs begin and end with no real rhyme or reason and some of them seem to go on forever. This was clearly strike one against the movie.

As for the singers, I felt that most of them did OK with the material which they were given. Much has been made of Russell Crowe's singing voice, but I didn't think that it was that bad. Les Miserables is one of those annoying musicals where much of the dialogue is sung, and Crowe's low-key singing isn't all that different from the other actors singing their lines. Jackman, who has done Broadway, reaches too far at times, but shouldn't be ashamed. Hathaway's brief Oscar-winning performance is good and she certainly puts emotion into her singing. The true oddity here is Eddie Redmayne, whose singing voice sounds just like Dudley Do-Right. Every time he would sing I kept expecting other Muppets to join him on stage.

So, as a musical, Les Miserables did not work for me. But, how was the film's story? The first half is good, as we are drawn into the tale of Jean Valjean, a man who was sentenced to many years of back-breaking labor for a petty crime and then must rebuild his life. His rise to respectfulness and his promise to care for Cosette are plot points which are simplistic, but engaging. However, the story falls apart in the second half, where things never seem to come together. The relationship between Cosette and Marius is under-developed. This part of the film really focuses on the revolutionaries, but let's pretend for the moment that I don't know anything French history and at least give me a vague overview of exactly what they are revolting against. The pace becomes sluggish in the second half and the film's 2 1/2 hour running really hits you in the face.

I didn't know what to expect from Les Miserables, but I came away very disappointed. Given the enduring popularity of the stage version, I can only imagine that it's far different from this lackluster affair. Director Tom Hooper has made some good dramas in the past, such as The King's Speech, and I like the idea of having the actors singing live, but the way in which the second half (which should be exciting) drags, tells me that he may be in over his head here. I know that fans of the play had waited years for the movie, and I'm still waiting for that next musical to take me by surprise.

Les Miserables would have been better if Jackman had worn the claws on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc carries an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing only trace amounts of grain and no defects from the source material. Two things immediately stand out about this transfer. The first is that the colors are muted. This was most likely intentional given the subject matter. Secondly, the image gets very dark at times. There were some moments where it was difficult to tell what was happening. I'm less certain about this having been done on purpose. That aside, the picture shows a nice amount of detail and it never goes soft. The depth is good as well. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 5.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. As one would help, the music sounds fine. It's full-bodied and we can make out individual instruments without the singer being drowned out. The musical numbers fill the front and rear channels. Some of the low notes and the firing of cannons offers some subwoofer action.

For a major film like this, the Les Miserables Blu-ray Disc contains a relatively small amount of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Tom Hooper. "Les Miserables: A Revolutionary Approach" (63 minutes) is a nearly feature-length making-of featurette which is divided into six parts. The piece contains extensive interviews with Hooper, the cast and other members of the filmmaking crew. The featurette examines the actors and their characters, the history of the play, location shooting and the creation of the elaborate sets, and the way in which the actors sang live on the set. We see how many key scenes were staged and shot. "The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo's Les Miserables" (11 minutes) offers comments from an expert on French literature, who talks about the author's background and his writing. The cast and filmmakers note how influential the book was.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.