Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Grade : A+ Year : 2008 Director : Joss Whedon Running Time : 42min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

If the 42 minutes of Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” didn’t move so rapidly, I’d probably be able to just litter this review from quotes from the Internet phenomenon. Instead, I’ll try to restrain myself by just discussing the piece itself, which- on some days- I feel is the best thing Whedon’s ever done.

After reinvigorating what was possible on television with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “Firefly,” Whedon turned to the ‘Net for his next act. Actually, it was a happy by-product of the Writers Guild strike of 2007-2008. He wrote- with brothers Jed and Zack and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen (all of whom would later follow him to “Dollhouse”)- and shot the series during the strike, calling in favors, funding the rest himself, and promising actors a piece of the profits. Then he made it available online for free before making it available for sale on iTunes.

The rest, as they say, is history. Like all of his other work from “Buffy” on, “Dr. Horrible” inspired intense fandom and genuine excitement not only from the work itself- which won an Emmy and a People’s Choice Award- but has also expanded the possibilities of what can be done on the Internet, which seems to be the next destination for Joss, whose recent dealings with the networks over “Firefly” and “Dollhouse” (and his spotty film record, with co-writing efforts on “Speed,” “Toy Story,” and his feature directing debut “Serenity” the big highlights) has left a bad taste in his mouth.

In that respect, “Dr. Horrible” feels as revolutionary as “Citizen Kane” was when it was released. Which makes my lateness to the phenom all the more curious (especially considering my admiration of Whedon’s work over the years). I didn’t get to watching “Dr. Horrible” until close to when “Dollhouse” hit the airwaves, but yeah, it was well worth the wait.

Neil Patrick Harris plays Dr. Horrible, a man with “a Phd in Horribleness” and a hard-core crush on fellow laundromat denizen Penny (Felicia Day, whose own ‘Net phenom “The Guild” is well worth checking out) as he tries to make his place in the world of super-villainy and get into the Evil League of Evil (great name). Unfortunately, his plans for world domination and love are both thwarted by nemesis Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) who, well, let’s just say has a healthy sense of his own worth, even if it’s sometimes at the expense of others.

Whedon is not only playing with superhero conventions (as he did on “Buffy”) but with audience expectations as well. Our sympathies are more with good guy bad guy Billy (Dr. Horrible’s real name) than with Captain Hammer. We want to see him get in good with the “Thoroughbred of Sin” Bad Horse (whom we see in one of the great reveal shots in recent memory) and the ELE. And we want to see him get up the courage to ask out Penny, making the irony of how his plans work out sad indeed. But that’s in keeping with Whedon conventions- he always knows how to push his audience’s buttons emotionally while staying true to the truth of his storytelling which is that life is hard, loss is real, and one moment can take your characters into a direction that seems to be just below the surface, but is well within what we’d expect from them. Why else should we not be surprised to see Captain Hammer in therapy at the end?

Did I mention there’s singing? Yes, Whedon is back in mad-genius mode here with the singing, with a score co-written with brother Jed that is arguably even more impressive than the one he did for “Once More With Feeling” (his iconic “Buffy” episode). The sweet and devilish melancholy of awkwardness and self-discovery sung about in “My Freeze Ray.” The dueling feelings of life we see in the pained Billy and delighted Penny in “My Eyes.” The cheesy “heroic Everyman” ballad of “Everyone’s a Hero” from Captain Hammer and the frustration boiling over to madness from Billy in “Brand New Day.” And everything else in between (gotta love the jaunty and tuneful letters by the Bad Horse Chorus), which adds up to a wicked glint in Joss’ eye to show people, “oh yeah, I went there.”

And by using the format of a video blog, we see a natural progression of feelings, of things going awry that provides an inspired structure to go with the inspired glee (and utter sincerity) of the performances. From the duality of NPH’s Everyman villain-to-be and Fillion’s cornball hero to the sympathetic muse in Day’s Penny and the supportive sidekickiness of “Big Bang Theory’s” Simon Helberg as Moist, well, we should know by this point that Whedon can bring out things in actors we never suspected before. Should we really be surprised, then, to see what he was capable of with nothing to lose, and no one to answer to?

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