Into the Woodsby Alex Stroup, staff writer
There's something this review can't do for you. It won't be able to opine on whether Rob Marshall's adaptation of Into the Woods, the 1986 Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, properly captures the stage musical.
I came into this movie almost completely without preconception. In fact, while I knew it has been a play on Broadway, I didn't actually know it was a musical until a few weeks before the movie screened, when the trailers and commercials became a bit more specific about it.
So in fairness, I'm going to assume that whatever is good and flawed with the stories and songs is the fault of the source materials, while the director gets credit for the pacing and visuals.
Into the Woods is in the genre of revisionist fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm are mined here, with Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella," and Little Red Riding Hood entwining to show, that getting what you wish for may not be all that it's cracked up to be. Unfortunately for someone not already familiar with the nearly 30-year-old source material, it comes at the end of a lengthy sequence of revisionist fairy tales.
Official trailer from "Into The Woods." Copyright Walt Disney Company.
It's simply that sometimes you get what you want, only to learn really shouldn't have wanted it. And the failure to make big tortured claims ends up working to the movie's benefit; it tells its story without straining for a point, and within that, allows characters to expand and performances to live.
Of particular note are the female leads, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and the Witch (Meryl Streep). Each distinguishes herself as unique, finding a correct tone of evil, ferocity, innocence, or preturnatural awsareness. Kendrick and Crawford are strong singers—and Blunt surprises, and keeps up with them. We've seen Streep singing before in Mamma Mia! and that wasn't necessarily a complete success, and at first it'll seems she's avoiding the issue by speaking her lines more than singing. Eventually she belts one out, and it is fine, even if you wonder how much of an engineering assist she's getting.
They also handle their tone shift well. The structure of the movie is such that it almost feels like two separate episodes of a TV show rather than a cohesive whole. At what is presumably the intermission break, it felt so done that I started to grab my stuff to exit the theater before realizing that only 70 minutes had passed.
…And then the movie continues with a change in plot so abrupt that I kind of expected to see the opening credits again.
The male side of the ledger is a little weaker. The Baker (James Corden) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) are fine, but two days after seeing the movie, their performances have mostly faded from memory. Johnny Depp makes a brief appearance as Mr. Wolf, but he just carries too much baggage as an actor taking odd roles to completely blend in.
Most surprising is Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince. He lays on the smarm and, along with Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen), gets the closest thing to a showstopper I experienced with "Agony," in which they compete over who is most hurt by love's travails.
The fact that "Agony" is the song I best recall hightlights a weakness of the movie. While the songs never really harm the movie, neither do they feel essential to it. Many songs are just exposition, and worse, a few simply restate what was just shown. At times it reminded me of one of those "literal videos" where the lyrics of the song have been rewritten to match the actions of the music video (see, for example, "Total Eclipse of the Heart").
If it's easy to imagine a musical without the music, then perhaps it didn't need to be a musical.
Into the Woods remains well worth seeing. Good performances shine through depsite the songs being rarely impressive. Which is a nice surprise, since neither of Rob Marshall's other musicals (Chicago and Nine) were any good at all. Yes, I said it: Chicago was not a good movie. Good to finally get that off my chest even if it is completely irrelevant at the moment.
Take your family to the theater this holiday weekend—and your homework is this: Compare and contrast the techniques of adaptation used by Rob Marhsall with Into the Woods and Will Gluck with Annie.
- Into the Woods is a Walt Disney Pictures release.
- Wide theatrical release on Thursday, December 25, 2014
- Directed by Rob Marshall
- Screenplay by James Lapine
- Starring Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Mackenzie Mauzy
- Running time: 124 minutes
- Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
- Alex's rating: 7 out of 10