'Dr. Horrible' is a Nu Media Classic!

by Bill Gibron

24 May 2010

At a scant 42-minutes, watching Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog is like getting a serving of the most sensational, creamiest cheesecake on the planet, only to have the waiter whisk it away before you've had a chance to eat the whole thing.
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Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Blu-ray)

US DVD: 25 May 2010

It’s not easy to create mythology. Anyone can tell a story, but to provide the right amount of timeless universalism, personal connection, and enduring curiosity is a chore not even the gods can regularly retain. It takes a special artistic temperament - and some luck. So when Buffy fave Joss Whedon decided to create an Internet-based bit of musical malarkey, a by-product of his need for fierce artistic independence, the looming writer’s strike, and easy access to the technology to make his vision real, he knew he had to try. The results - the ridiculously brilliant Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. Reams have been written about this amazing websterpiece, with everyone discussing its addictive score, faultless performances, and anti-Hollywood posturing. But what many overlook is Whedon’s main accomplishment - the formation of an instantaneously mesmerizing folklore that demands investigation, expansion, and continuation.

Billy, aka Dr. Horrible (a stunning Neil Patrick Harris) is desperate to get into the Evil League of Evil (E.L.E., for short). Run by the Thoroughbred of Sin, Bad Horse, it’s the ultimate honor for any mad scientist. As he begins a blog outlining his plans for acceptance, we learn of the three main reasons he’s failed in the past. First off, he is often thwarted by his arch nemesis Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), a superhero who’s also super cheesy. Next, there’s a lack of competent henchmen. For his part, Dr. Horrible is stuck being helped by the mediocre sidekick Moist, a baddie whose main claim to fame is the ability to make things damps. Ew.
Finally, and most devastating of all, is his obsessive love for Laundromat vision Penny (Felicia Day). As much as he wants in E.L.E., Dr. Horrible is doubly passionate about getting this gal to like him. As he puts his plans to develop a time-stopping ‘Freeze Ray’ into effect, he will have to overcome Hammer’s hokey machismo, and his own self-esteem issues, to win Penny and impress Bad Horse. Naturally, as with many of his best laid plans, Dr. Horrible will struggle to succeed - and he will let the whole world know about it on his frequent trips to the webcam.

In some ways, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is a big fat cheat. At a scant 42 minutes, it’s like getting a serving of the most sensational, creamiest cheesecake on the planet, only to have the waiter whisk it away before you’ve had a chance to eat the whole thing. Before we know it, the plot here has played out, the emotional elements have moved us to near tears, and all we want is more, MORE, MORE!!! As an example of what genius can do when given the proper amount of aesthetic space, this is entertainment satisfaction personified and made literal. Even better, it begins something that begs for further exploration, the origins of a classic combination of comic book zeitgeist, heroes and villains duality, the long running battle between good, evil, and the ennui that shapes our post-modern times.

That it’s a musical as well adds even more fire to the gargantuan geek pyre. With the help of family members Zack and Jed, as well as collaborator Maurissa Tancharoen, Whedon whittles down a century of Broadway bravado into a collection of operetta style tunes which do more than just break up the storyline. They sell every part of the production - the characters, the plot elements, the underlying themes and subtext, the wit, the wisdom, and worn out wistfulness inherent in its melancholy. Each of the actors does a definitive job in embodying the material, turning occasional trite and superficial sentiments into bon mots of melodious meaning. Even Fillion, whose Capt. Hammer is viewed as the biggest dofus in the dynamic, provides layers of likeability inside his often egotistical expressions.

But the real star here is Harris. A million miles away from his previous onscreen personas, he turns Dr. Horrible into a friendly fiend, a bad guy that’s not quite secure with his sinister urges. Even as he plots out the destruction of the planet, he slips into moments of tragic-comedy compassion. Without Whedon behind the scenes, pulling the strings, this viewpoint could become manipulative and maudlin. Instead, the meshing of Harris’ pitch perfect embodiment of Dr. Horrible’s complicated personality and his creator’s dramatic designs unleash a wealth of worthwhile ideas. Again, one of the main reasons this mini-movie is so special is that it offers a level of intricacy so profound that it barely manages to stay within the confines of its own story. Instead, it demands further free association, Dr. Horrible and his fellow E.L.E. members ready to become the stuff of legitimate legend.

While previously available for free online (it still is, by the way) and on DVD, the question then becomes - is the newly repackaged Blu-ray version of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog worth picking up? The answer, of course, depends on your own demands. As a project, it’s perfect - entertaining, engaging, and endearing. As a package, we get the same old bonus features as offered previously. They include the amazing “Commentary: The Musical” (that’s right, an entire 42 alternate narrative track SUNG by the cast and crew), a regular non-showtune discussion, a Behind the Scenes featurette, fan “auditions” for the Evil League of Evil, and other goodies. While the sound and image are vastly improved, it seems surreal that a concept originally conceived for the independence of the ‘Net is now asking for your hard earned cash. Of course, when you learn that the payment helps out those who made the movie (few if anyone was paid upfront), it makes a purchase a little more palatable.

In a clear case of being overly cautious over what you wish for, here’s hoping Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog becomes much more than just a one-off sideline by an artist whose cult is slowly becoming commercial. As it is, the final 42 minute epic is pristine. While future installments could be equally flawless, popularity (and expectations) has been known to poison even the most promising conceit. Of course, not every expressive experiment has someone like Joss Whedon behind it. With his guiding light, Dr. Horrible is destined to become a supervillain for the ages. After all, he already has the hardest part - the mythos - down pat.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (Blu-ray)


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