Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Film Review: Into The Woods

There are many things to admire about this adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, but the movie falls a bit flat.  However most of the reasons are found in the story itself and not the skills of the filmmakers.

Into the Woods, for those who don't know, is Sondheim's attempt to deconstruct the fairy tale.  In order to do this, he first constructs the classic stories of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Beanstalk, as well a novel creation of the Baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) and the witch's (Meryl Streep) curse.  Together they interact and achieve the well-known end of their journey.  But then he takes you beyond the original ending and creates a much more complicated, nihilistic end to the journey.

And therein is the ultimate thematic flaw: the movie embraces a moral relativism but tries to hold on to some sense of love and joy.  At least movies like Watchmen didn't pretend to be sunshine and roses when it asserted that life was empty and pointless.  The final ballad "No One Is Alone," plays like an old-fashioned melody, but it is an ode to subjective morality.  Into the Woods feels outwardly like a classic musical, but its internal moral compass is all wrong.

That isn't to say the cast and crew don't try their best.  The songs tend to be both fairly catchy and very pretty.  Sondheim knows how to bang out a tune.  And his lyrics are sometimes insanely fun.  Standouts here include Kendrick as Cinderella who reminds us that her singing range in Pitch Perfect was not a fluke.  She brings great charisma to the part and plays it wonderfully.

Also Emily Blunt probably shows the best range of voice and character as the Baker's Wife, who is funniest when her desperation becomes horribly serious. But when things get truly serious and dire, Blunt effortlessly brings gravitas where there was once just airy lightness.

 And I have to give Streep credit for once again not losing a beat as the Witch.  She credibly brought pain and pathos to what could have been a silly character.  And the standout has to be Chris Pine as Prince Charming who gets funnier the more passionate he becomes.

But there is an artificiality to the stage version that does not translate into film.  The staging and danger feel different here than on stage.  For example, Johnny Depp plays the Wolf.  And while his vocals are nice, his portrayal is translated as a sexual predator.  This makes what should be a playful song uncomfortable and gross.

There is also another inherent problem with Into the Woods in that it is too long.  The first act tells the complete story of the main characters.  The second act, in a real sense, is a sequel to the events of the first.  As the second act draws on, the filmmakers wisely trim some of the scenes.  However, that is always a double-edged sword, seeing as how they cut my favorite song ("No More") from the show.  But it was a necessary sacrifice to the overall quality of the film, which is drags a bit.  It might have been better to shorten up the first act so that the second act didn't feel as rushed.

And there is some delightful staging to be seen.  The song "On the Steps of the Palace" is sung in flashback on stage.  But in the movie, the director freezes time so that we can see Cinderlla's present-tense dillema and resolution.  The waterfall set one-upmanship of "Agony" is an over-the-top highlight.

So the filmmakers did the best they could with the source material.  The thematic flaws were too fundamentally woven into the narrative that they couldn't be removed.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

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