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INTO THE WOODS Review – ***½

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The poster puts Streep front and center, but this one's all about the ensemble. (Source)

The poster puts Streep front and center, but this one’s all about the ensemble. (Source)

I confess, my history with Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy-tale musical has been a checkered one. I saw it…oh, probably around 10 years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the first act while being put off by the second act. I saw it again about two years ago, and thought about the same. I understand what the show tries to do with its second act, but I find the message (which is, essentially, “happily ever after isn’t always happy”) a rather obvious one, and that the show communicates it in a rather ham-fisted manner.

So when I sat down in the movie theater on Christmas day (and a packed theater it was, too), I was a little concerned that I would have about the same experience as in the live one. But, while the film is not without flaws of its own, it manages to be thematically far more graceful than the stage show. And if none of the individual performances really stand out, they work extremely well together–there’s a reason it’s won all those ensemble awards. And at film’s end, what did I hear but the sound of applause from my fellow audience members.

That doesn’t happen often–unless you’re Inglourious Basterds.

There are several interlocking stories which make up the show:

  • A Baker (James Corden), and his Wife (Emily Blunt), are childless, and badly want to be parents. They learn that a curse of infertility has been placed on his family by a Witch (Meryl Streep), who was wronged by his father many years ago. To undo the curse, they must retrieve a number of artifacts:
    • A cape “as red as blood”, and who should have one but Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who’s on her way to Grandmother’s house with a basket of treats (if she doesn’t eat them all herself), and who is waylaid by an unsettlingly fascinated Wolf (Johnny Depp);
    • A cow “as white as milk”, and Milky-White (Tug), the dear friend of Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), fits the bill nicely, especially since his long-suffering mother (Tracey Ullman) has order him to sell it. And sell it he does–to the Baker and his Wife for a handful of magic beans;
    • A slipper “as pure as gold”, which must come from the foot of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who goes to the festival and meets a Prince (Chris Pine) who becomes entranced by her;
    • And hair “as yellow as corn”, which it appears must come from the head of Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who has been isolated from society by the Witch (who is acting out of love, but still), and who has a prince of her own (Billy Magnussen).

Over three days, the artifacts are acquired, the Wolf is killed, the beanstalk grows (and Jack becomes rich), the prince finds Cinderella, Rapunzel escapes, the curse undone, and everyone is prepared to live happily ever after–but trouble’s a-coming, and it’s not just in the form of a Giant (Frances de la Tour) seeking revenge for her dead husband…

There are certain issues with the source material of Into the Woods that even the film can’t totally overcome. First and foremost–and I expect many will disagree with me–is that I find the score to be really fairly unmemorable for the most part. “Into the Woods” is a total earworm, the chorus of “Agony” sticks with me, and some of the songs are lyrically memorable–“No One is Alone” is very touching, and “Hello, Little Girl”…let’s just say, anyone who finds “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” unsettling might run screaming from that one–but musically, I have a hard time remembering most of them.

To be fair, Sondheim’s style is generally to write songs that fit into the show rather than writing showstoppers or standalone hits, but musically, it’s really not his finest hour. His lyrics, for the most part, are as clever as you’d expect (though, the Witch’s narrative of how the Baker’s family came to be cursed is pretty awful; “You should see my nectarines”–what the fuck, Stephen?), and the songs generally serve their purpose, which is to advance the story…but outside of that, they’re not all that great.

And Lapine’s book is uneven, particularly in its grasp of magic, which seems arbitrarily dictated by the needs of the story more than anything else (the Witch’s abilities and limitations in particular fall victim to this). On the other hand, especially in the first act, he shows a great deal of wit and black humor (witness the macabre desperation of Cinderella’s sisters to fit in her slipper), and the juggling of the various tales is, on the whole, ingenious. When he falls victim to didacticism in the second half, the work sags, especially since he is determined to dole out a rude awakening to each and every character.

In adapting the show for film, however, Lapine manages to retain the fun of the first half and the darkness of the second while making the parade of tragedies somewhat more natural than before. There are still some hiccups–the death of one character is rather clunkily handled, and the script must share some responsibility in the murkiness of the climax–but given that the primary tonal shift had to be achieved without the benefit of an act break, Lapine did an admirable job.

Rob Marshall’s direction succeeds in giving the film some of the excitement and flavor of the stage version; scenes pile upon scenes rather breathlessly, and the pace rarely lags. He stages some sequences very effectively: the “Agony” duet between Pine and Magnussen is a hilarious bit of one-upmanship as each tries to out-pose the other, and Red Riding Hood in the Wolf’s stomach is handled…interestingly, to say the least. On the other hand, the climactic face-off against the Giant suggests a lack of skill in staging action scenes and/or a limited budget; indeed, at $50 million, Into the Woods is pretty modestly priced for a major Hollywood musical; Marshall’s own Nine cost $80 million five years ago.

The limited budget also manifests itself in the production design and special effects. The all-important Woods are pretty unnotable, and while the various castles and dwellings are more accomplished, the film is less of a production design feast than one might expect. And the special effects are sometimes outright dodgy; Cinderella’s birds are pretty fake-looking, and the decision to keep the Giant mostly obscured, a technical necessity on the stage, comes off as corner-cutting on the screen.

And Wyatt Smith’s editing is both clever in its juggling of the different plotlines and jarring in its pacing; often the film seems to move a little too fast, and the modifications made to the second half result in its being a good deal shorter than the stage version, and sometimes it crosses the line from “swift” to “rushed”.

Still, Dion Beebe’s cinematography and Colleen Atwood’s costumes are quite strong, and the sound mixing is all that it needs to be. The makeup, however, which was surprisingly left off the Academy’s shortlist, is surprisingly unremarkable, and even the work on Streep (the Witch is haggard in the first half, glamorous in the second) is nothing to write home about. It might be pushing it a tad to say the film is chintzy, but surely Disney could’ve coughed up a little more money for their Christmastime prestige picture?

But where the physical production falls a bit short, the acting mostly hits the mark. Streep is a strong contender for a Supporting Actress nomination, if not a lock, but good as she is (as she always is), I don’t think she really ought to be in the running. She’s very enjoyable in the film (she’s clearly having a blast), and she sings quite well, but that’s about it. She never really rises above the ensemble, which is as it should be–but to single her out for awards would be more in recognition of who she is than anything else. Blunt is the other major awards contender (she’s up for a Lead Actress – Musical/Comedy Globe), and she’s quite good; my initial impression was that she and Corden were lovable, and indeed she brings her considerable charm to bear on a rather poignant role.

Corden, likewise, is charming (though he doesn’t totally overcome the Baker’s occasionally obnoxious nature), and Huttlestone is enjoyably sprightly as the head-in-the-clouds Jack; here Jack is portrayed as being around 12 or so, which casts him in a rather different light than other productions, which often portray him as being in his late teens or older. Here, he suggests the boundless energy and imagination of youth–and the pitfalls thereof–about as effectively (and arguably more so) as Ellar Coltrane does in Boyhood.

Pine, so often cast as a spoiled asshole, here plays another, but the Prince has far more humanity and far better material than Pine’s other recent roles, and one rather believes his effect on the ladies (spoilers? I won’t say) Depp, though playing a non-human role, is a good deal more grounded than he’s been in quite some time, and as the queasily voracious Wolf, he’s certainly memorable, if rather horrifying in his hunger for Red Riding Hood.

On the other hand, Kendrick never quite seems comfortable as Cinderella; clearly, she means to convey Cinderella’s confusion and indecision (which are most fully expressed in “On the Steps of the Palace”), but she comes off rather self-consciously. She’s certainly not bad, but she generally seems slightly off. And Crawford’s Red starts off on a rather grating note and not until the second half does she really seem natural; elsewhere her performance is too polished, too rehearsed, and she acts as if she were on a Broadway stage rather than in a film.

But as an ensemble, the cast proves to be greater than the sum of their parts. The final note of community growing out of shared loss is all the more affecting because of it. From the charming pair of the Baker and his Wife, to the snarky Red’s encounters with the Baker and Wolf (and here Crawford’s clipped style works to the film’s advantage), to the Witch’s gleeful manipulations (and later, denunciations) of the others, the cast come together to make for a lively, witty, and ultimately heartwarming experience.

Into the Woods may not go down as one of the great film musicals, in large part due to its imperfect filmmaking, but the strength of its cast ultimately makes it well worth watching. And ultimately, I do understand why the audience applauded; for better or worse, it felt like we’d seen a show.

Score: 81/100

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