This sixth film version of Gaston Leroux's enduringly popular penny dreadful is literally awash in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, which made it such a mega-hit on international stages. That is a good thing for his multitudes of fans, but not so hot for the rest of us. Webber produced (and co-wrote) The Phantom of the Opera, which means that every note of his score has been immortally preserved in the amber of film as if it were Verdi or Puccini. Actually, it is Puccini, as major themes of that composer's The Girl of the Golden West and Turandot have been cribbed by Webber for his songs. The blatancy of these musical "borrowings" is not half as bad as the fact that innocent future generations will assume that these are indeed Webber's original inspirations.

It's all rather a shame, as some savvy editing would have improved the work and made it a pretty satisfying movie musical. Joel Schumacher has directed it with a careful devotion that is a world apart from his anything-for-a-flash pyrotechnics of yore. The film has been given a truly lavish production that is as evocatively romantic at times as it is baroquely overdone at others, in the manner of an expensively produced music-video. Some of the images in Paris' Opera Populaire, where the film is largely set, have a wondrous Gustave Doré richness to them, while others, like the Phantom's candle-encrusted lair, just look like the boudoir of Cher. The film initially draws you into this vivid, fanciful world of opera (operetta, really), and it's only later, with the appearance of the Phantom (Gerard Butler), who uncannily haunts the theatre, and Webber's banal Muzak droning on and on, that aesthetic inertia sets in. The famous masked ball scene, where the Phantom makes his dramatic entrance, is completely undone by the atrocious song "Masquerade," while the choreography looks like something from the Grammy Awards.

Happily, Emmy Rossum is a real find as Christine Daaé, the ballerina-turned-opera diva over whom the Phantom obsesses. Possessed of a doe-like beauty, sylph figure and pretty if not overly expressive voice, she brings a fresh conviction to a role that is little more than eternally beset victim. Patrick Wilson (Angels in America) makes an appealingly ardent, gallant partner for her as Raoul. Behaving like Anna Magnani in a bustle and on steroids, Minnie Driver overdoes the Italianate, temperamental fireworks of Carlotta, the opera star, whom Christine supplants, a role that comes off even more cartoonishly than it did onstage. The always somewhat Guignol Miranda Richardson appropriately lurks like Blanche Yurka as the sinister ballet mistress, who holds the Phantom's secret. (It's a definite weakness of the script that she is given far more backstory than the Phantom himself.)

What really made the stage version of this musical work was Michael Crawford, with his theatrically romantic commitment and eerie choirboy's voice investing his songs with a hushed intensity. It was a career-morphing casting coup that forever transformed him from the eternal, skinny juvenile of Hello, Dolly! into a real, modern-day matinee idol. Without a proper Phantom, the entire enterprise sags monumentally, and, unfortunately, Butler is a disaster here. There's a bland, soap-opera-ish feel to his masked look and acting, in chest-baring piratical blouson, and his unmemorable voice has been cheesily, thunderously enhanced by the sound department to up the horror-movie ante. And when Christine finally unmasks him, his makeup is a far, uninspired cry from Lon Chaney's scarifying mien in the unforgettable 1925 silent, or even Claude Rains' in the tacky Technicolor 1945 version.