After weeks of anticipation and frantic last-minute shopping, the day after Christmas usually brings with it a kind of pleasant, plump stagnation. This respite is welcome, for sure, but the post-holiday hangover can prompt a certain kind of restless languor that longs to be disrupted. So when my dad asked me if I'd like to go to Joel Schumacher's big screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, I peeled myself off the couch and drove with him to our local movie theater. I had seen the stage production of Phantom when I was very young, and though I vaguely recalled some of the music, I didn't remember much of it in the way of sensation or plotline. Based on that, I deduced that the show was not especially memorable...but then, I was very young, and it's possible that I slept through much of it. So when I settled into my seat the day after Christmas, I didn't know precisely what to expect.

Phantom is set in Paris, and more specifically, at the trendy Opera Populaire. The Opera Populaire is a well-attended opera house that has recently come under the new management of two dandies (Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow) who accumulated a fortune in the junk business (or the "scrap metal" business, they are quickly to correct). After a number of unusual occurrences and the discovery of several portentous epistles, it becomes apparent that the Opera's new proprietors are merely guests in the sanctuary of an aloof and authoritarian spirit. Against the admonitions of senior choreographer Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), the stubborn and miserly new owners dismiss the legend of the "Phantom of the Opera," ignoring the letters' strict instructions. Meanwhile, the Opera house's rising star, Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum), who has been tutored by a mysterious, heretofore disembodied voice, is visited at last by the masked specter that has occupied her dreams. The Phantom competes for Christine's affections with her childhood muse, Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a local viscount and the Opera's most kissed-up-to patron, who desperately attempts to release her from the spirit's spell. Soon, bizarre and tragic events begin to befall the Opera Populaire, as its resident ghost seeks to reclaim dominion over his opera house and the woman he loves.

Although some purists found the idea of exporting Phantom from the stage to the screen sacrilegious, the increased range of possibility with regard to visual effects and the scope of the setting is impossible to ignore. Schumacher and his visual designers did a fantastic job, however, in not going overboard with the opportunities that the new medium made available to them. It would have been tempting to embellish the action sequences with some CGI effects, but Schumacher more or less adheres to the original stage directions?most of the movie takes place onstage anyway. The advantages of the film medium are most apparent during the long shots of characters navigating the labyrinthine bowels of the Opera Populaire, the scene in which the chandelier crashes from the ceiling and sets the opera house aflame, and in the Phantom's lair, whose dank, sewerish motif is difficult to simulate on a stage.

The casting is very smartly done. There are no big names or familiar faces to distract from the real central character, which is the music itself. Schumacher cast actual stage actors in lieu of movie stars, with the exception of Minnie Driver, who plays the whiny, self-obsessed diva who kept reminding my dad of erstwhile Red Sox right-hander Pedro Martinez. While the idea of Jude Law pursuing Jennifer Garner through the opera house rafters in a billowing black cape might have seemed like a cool idea initially, I'm relieved that Schumacher resisted. All the cast members recorded their own singing except for Driver, and let me tell you, it is fantastique.

Rossum's performance portends a rise to star-status that could parallel her character's?her name is the focus of a great deal of Oscar buzz already. Gerard Butler (the Phantom) isn't too shabby either, executing the movie's most challenging male singing role with precision, and Hinds and Callow are superb in their joint capacity as the comic relief. Wilson is a tad vacant as Raoul, who represents the only real casting flaw. But like I said, the central character is the music, and it steals the show. Not only are Webber's compositions powerful and irresistibly catchy, but the soundtrack enjoys the advantages of sound editing (and some digital effects, like the cool synth in the main score). If you don't have surround-sound at home, this is one that you must see in the theater.

Although a number of critics have nitpicked at such issues as the degree of the Opera Ghost's disfigurement (not disfigured enough, they roar!), Phantom's triumphs soar high above its flaws. It is a sensational masterpiece that will have you humming for weeks afterwards. This will be outrageously irritating to your roommate(s), so bring them along, too. At least then they can harmonize.

4 out of 4 Polar Bears