Tuesday, January 6, 2015

INTO THE WOODS: A FILM REVIEW

Into The Woods (2014)
Directed By: Rob Marshall
Written By: James Lapine based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name
Genre: MUSICAL
Rated: PG
Time: 125 min
Starring: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Daniel Huttlestone, and Lilla Crawford
Plot: A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.

Comments: Into the Woods has been one of my favorite musicals since I first heard Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason sing. When they first announced the project I was nervous and excited at the same time. There were rumors about missing songs and changes to the story. We saw the first glimpse of Johnny Depp as the Wolf and I got a little scared...and possibly a little angry. Plus how could Meryl Streep compare to Peters? And yet despite all of this it has a wonderful cast and with each trailer, I got a little more excited. I heard snippets of my favorite songs. I knew it was kind of the perfect way to finish up the Holiday weekend.

For those who have not seen Into the Woods it is essentially a darker retelling mashup of many of the classic fairytales. You have Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. The main focus is on the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are childless all due to a curse brought about by the Baker’s deadbeat father. To break the curse they must find four things. So off to the woods they go encountering “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold”…and so forth.

Now Rob Marshall has made some good musical adaptations (Chicago) and some bad ones (Nine). Into the Woods is one of his better ones. I like the way it looks (almost like a holodeck stage production…I don’t know how else to explain it. There aren’t too many set pieces, Cinderella’s birds look like they were almost trying to be birds on string or maybe it was just horrid CGI, but I felt like they were wonky on purpose) and the way it sounds. The costumes are gorgeous (minus the Wolf) and for the most part I liked some of his visual choices.

I don’t think the film takes itself too seriously as in it is not trying so hard to root itself in realism. Let’s face it, if that were true Johnny Depp’s Zoot Suit Riot wolf would not exist among many other things. Like I said I still feel like it was a holodeck stage production. It still feels like a stage production which is what I love, but with way better technology and sets. I think the thing I really liked was how natural the singing was. In some filmed musicals you have the feeling of ‘oh look here is another song’. In Into the Woods it seemed perfect reasonable that the characters would sing for exposition, to further the story, or to speak their thoughts. It seemed natural and helped it come alive even more for me.

There are, of course, some changes from the musical I grew up with. Rapunzel doesn’t go mad, The Princes don’t have affairs with Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and The Baker’s father never appears as the Mysterious Man. A few songs are missing and the Wolf and Red Riding Hoods sexual undertones are pretty much nixed. The pacing in the second half isn’t so great and it loses a lot of its dark edge which I enjoyed so much. But as a whole it’s not bad. I was entertained and have been singing ‘Agony’ and ‘Last Midnight’ constantly in my head since we saw it.

Let’s talk about the performances. Lilla Crawford as Red has an amazing voice. While I may have been disappointed that making her character much younger takes away the sexual awakening of her song and all of the double entendres “And he showed me things / Many beautiful things / That I hadn’t thought to explore” (It definitely has a different connotation in the film version), I can still recognize the talent of that young lady. Again with Jack, Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche in Les Miserables) plays the famous giant slayer as a young kid, rather than a simple adult. He’s adorable and did a great job. I really didn’t mind making him a kid.

Of course Anna Kendrick should be in every musical ever (excited to see her in The Last Five Years in a few months). She’s a great actress and when she sings…yeah, she’s amazing. Thankfully Johnny Depp’s wolf is blissfully brief because no matter how much I love the guy, the Wolf was just ruined. Damn shame and I don’t think it is entirely his fault. James Corden and Emily Blunt are of course amazing, but by far my two favorites were Meryl Streep and Mr. Chris Pine. That’s right, Chris Pine. As Prince Charming he is channeling some hard core Shatner and it works. In ‘Agony’ (his duet with his brother Prince played by Billy Magnussen who is great as well btw) the two princes are trying to top one another’s misery in a waterfall, with ripped shirts, and some overacting but in all the good ways. It was hilarious and I loved listening to the entire theater laugh along with me.

I think my biggest disappointment was how weak the second half was. While I know sing edits and scenes were cut probably due to time, the second half of the story is all about Happily Ever After not being that great. In the stage version the Baker and his wife have their child, but now wish for a bigger space. The Princes are unsatisfied, Rapunzel is crazy, and Cinderella is ready to go do her own thing. But everyone got their wish right? In a stage version you have an intermission in between, a very distinct second half begins when you return to your seats and it’s like starting all over again, you just have more information this time around. The film didn’t capture that. The pacing was off. You had weird happy endings and riding into the sunset when everything else isn’t so great. Chris Pine played Prince Charming over the top enough that it was easy to believe he would stray from his Princess Cinderella a bit more, but I couldn’t understand why the Baker’s Wife would. Everything seemed off and that is unfortunate as I really, really like the second half of the musical.

Rent/Cinema? Cinema. Yes I have my gripes but again, like I said, its one of my favorite musicals of all time so I was expecting to grumble a bit. Point is, I had fun. Sing along with everyone. It will be wonderful.

3.50/4 popcorns

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