Aside from Baz Luhrmann, Julie Taymor would seem to be a perfect director for Across the Universe, a musical about the late '60s set exclusively to music by the Beatles. She was, after all, the woman who so successfully translated Disney's biggest box-office hit, The Lion King, into one of the most popular and critically acclaimed stage musicals of all time. Sadly, Taymor's formidable skills in the theater just don't translate to the silver screen.
Although her unconventional eye helps her create memorable images, Taymor's creative sensibilities are painfully literal-minded, hampering the film on numerous occasions. The most glaring example of this can be found in her staging of "I Want You/She's So Heavy." The sequence begins with the character Max visiting his local draft board, where he's serenaded with "I want you," by a towering animated Uncle Sam leaning down from a recruiting poster. Then comes a group of officers performing Busby Berkeley-esque sequences that strongly recall Alan Parker's most famous sequences in The Wall, followed by a scene where Max and other new recruits walk through a miniaturized version of a Vietnam rice paddy. We can see that he and the others are carrying something on their backs while they sing, "She's So Heavy," and lo and behold, the object they are straining to support is the Statue of Liberty. The imagery is so obvious and heavy-handed, it manages to nullify the poetry of the songs themselves.
Taymor's failure to find interesting, let alone meaningful, ways to recontextualize these songs is bad enough -- as we are talking about some of the most iconic music in history here -- but the awkwardness with which she stages the songs is even worse. "I Want to Hold Your Hand," for instance, becomes the quiet lament of a high-school girl crushing on a fellow cheerleader. Although it's one of the few times one of the songs is reinterpreted in a thought-provoking way, the choreography of the girl's stroll across the football field, with football players falling and cartwheeling behind her in slow motion, kills any interest in the song. They aren't "dancing" and they don't look like they've actually just been hit. It's just a bunch of movement for movement's sake, the surest sign of a director not knowing what to do with material. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" becomes a pointless special-effects extravaganza with Eddie Izzard failing to find any of the song's inherent whimsy or humor in his utterly bent delivery. Bono, looking a great deal like Robin Williams, shows up as Dr. Robert in order to sing a version of "I Am the Walrus" awash in such obviously trippy psychedelic explosions of color that the sequence could easily be viewed as camp or kitsch if the entire film weren't so earnest.
The actors all have fine singing voices, but it's hard to know if they are truly skilled because they're not really playing characters, just cardboard cutouts in a story constructed around familiar '60s imagery and puns on Beatles lyrics. When asked how a character got into the apartment they share, our hero quips, "she came in through the bathroom window." All that's missing is a rim shot.
Across the Universe tells us nothing new about the '60s, offers not a single sequence that can be savored by movie musical enthusiasts, and never once comes anywhere close to the magic of the original Beatles recordings. The movie fails so spectacularly because never once does Julie Taymor convince us that it needs to exist.