Thursday, January 15, 2015

Into the Woods

Another Christmas, another movie musical.

Into the Woods, considered the most accessible of Stephen Sondheim's challenging canon, has made a movie debut at last. And just as it did on Broadway, is garnering everything from confusion to cheers to... more confusion.

I was admittedly a little hesitant about this one. I'm a pretty big fan of the original Broadway production with Bernadette Peters in the role of the Witch. A musical movie that does not have a lot of Broadway people in it is usually a warning sign for me that I might be getting something that does not do a fantastic score justice (see Les Mis). And Into the Woods, which features actors who have done musical movies before i.e. Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia, Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect which kind of counts I guess, Daniel Huttlestone was a standout Gavroche in Les Mis (edit: I found this out after the first draft of this post but Lilla Crawford who plays Little Red was Annie on Broadway in a production that closed about a  year ago).  Anyway, not a lot of Broadway people in this show that is very Broadway. Into the Woods score is not in any way pop, like the tunes of Frozen or even the bit-of-both in Les Miserables (sorry for all the comparisons). This initially worried me.

However, I am happy to report that I quite liked the movie. I think it is one of the better results of what is beginning to be a new era for the movie musical.

Into the Woods is the most accessible for a reason. It takes some of your favorite old fairy tales, and then some new stuff, and basically runs with it, examining morality and wishes, and that happily ever after rarely turns out like we think it should. It's about delving into the psychological depths of some of the world's most beloved characters.

It follows the baker and his wife, cursed with barrenness by their next door neighbor, the witch, and how they intertwine with stories like Cinderella and Rapunzel and Jack and the beanstalk and Little Red and so on so forth. It plays off of your  Disneyfied expectations of these stories to create something new and not entirely nice.
Which is awkward, because Disney produced the movie.

Therein was another of my doubts about ITW. It was created as a rebuttal to the sanitized fairy tales the youth of American grew up (and are still growing up) on. A PG rating for a musical that could easily be rated R in its original content produced by a company famous for child-safe sanitary fairy tales? It was puzzling to say the least.

And therein was probably the biggest, but one of the few, gripes I had with this film. Did you know Rapunzel dies in the original? Did you know that Cinderella's prince and the Baker's Wife do more than just kiss? I'm not trying to be on my high horse or anything of that nature, but I feel that it took away some of the emotional punch of the story, all in the name of getting it a kid's rating in order to perhaps entice some families. The kid behind me started crying when Milky White, Jack's cow, died. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the things these kids would have to deal with later on in the movie.

However, that was one of my only gripes. This movie surprised me in how good it actually was.

There is not a bad singer in the bunch, thank God. Meryl Streep positively kills it as the Witch, one of the most demanding Sondheim roles. She absolutely commits to it. James Corden and Emily Blunt are perfect for the Baker and his Wife, possessing that kind of every-person quality necessary for this kind of thing. Lilla Crawford brings a Broadway edge to the role of Little Red (which makes sense, since she was in the latest Annie revival that closed about a year ago). Little Red is easily my least favorite character of the bunch in Into the Woods, but Crawford manages to make it more likeable in the film, which surprised me so, so kudos for that. Daniel Huttlestone, who killed it in Les Miserables, plays Jack of beanstalk fame, and does an excellent job.  It's a little weird to see someone who actually looks Jack's age playing him (it's usually someone in their late teens early teens) but Huttlestone is really good and his singing sounds fantastic. Again, it lends that credibility to it. What works on stage doesn't always work on film, and it'd look super weird to have some late teens early twenties  guy playing a kid in a film, even though it works in the show.

I was just a tad disappointed in Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, but only in regards to her singing. It's not that it was bad by any means, I just feel like it did not fit the character as well as a more classical soprano might have. although Kendrick's acting is spot on. She's a very endearing Cinderella. On the other hand, Chris Pine has a pretty good singing voice as the Prince (and gets easily the best moment in the show along with Rapunzel's prince), his acting is so phoned in it takes you out of the story. Luckily, he's not that involved in a lot of speaking scenes. Rapunzel and her Prince are super minor characters, but both are excellent, and I have no bad words about either.

On another note, can we stop putting actors who don't have more than five minutes in the movie top billing on the poster? Johnny Depp makes a very creepy wolf and does good with what is given to him, but he is literally only in it for one song. From the way they were promoting it, I thought that maybe they'd given him some extra stuff, which is confusing, but they didn't.

In technical aspects, the movie also excels. The costumes and make-up are a fantastic compliment to the story, and I especially adored the Witch's costume post-transformation (I promise, that's not a spoiler). The set and production design are just the right blend of realistic and fairy-tale, and the actual Woods themselves are just perfect, so props to the set team. And the orchestrations and music are just beautiful, and props to putting in the first Night Waltz from A Little Night Music in the scene at the ball, that's a really neat Sondheim easter egg!

Anyway, I really did enjoy the movie, and hope this continues to bring movie musicals that are good adaptations that are made to work on screen as opposed to just copying what was on the stage. They're different, and that's not a bad thing.

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