Saturday, January 3, 2015

Into the Woods

Ambitious, mature, 
worthwhile, but not a home run

     The first miracle is that a movie has finally been released of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1987 musical that has been kicking around for the last couple of decades because Hollywood can only market action movies for 12 year old males and those adults that think like
them (and there are far more than one might imagine).  The next miracle is that Rob Marshall has pulled it off, though it’s not perfect and probably there couldn’t be a perfect version anyway.  A number of reviewers that don’t understand/like musicals have already blabbed about how the second half just doesn’t work for them because it’s not stupidly happy like the crappy over-produced superhero movies they’re so used to watching.  Unwittingly, they’ve revealed their own lack of emotional maturity about a work that demonstrates how characters develop maturity.

Cinderella with Her Wicked Step Mother and Step Sister
     The first half of Into the Woods weaves together the Grimm’s versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood with the original story of the Baker and his Wife, who hope for a child.  All of these episodes are pulled together by the Witch, who demands certain articles to complete a spell.  The second half deals with what it means to a romantic relationship to live after the happy ending, the changing relationships between parents and children, and whether individuals will come together as a group to combat an enemy.  It capably achieves this and, best of all, gets Sondheim’s score onscreen.  (There is also a terrific DVD version of the 1991 PBS film that features the original stage cast).

The Baker and His Wife with the Witch—
Corden, Blunt and Streep
     For the most part, the casting works well.  James Corden and Emily Blunt share a strong chemistry as the Baker and his Wife.  Both can sing as if they’re also acting the songs, which lends a real intimacy to their scenes.  Meryl Streep does well (when has she not?) and doesn’t allow the Witch to turn camp or nice.  Anna Kendrick performs the linchpin role of Cinderella, 
Anna Kendrick as Cinderella
who says, “My childhood was a nightmare.  The palace was a dream.  Now I need something in between.”  This states one of the major themes of Into the Woods.  
The Two Princes
Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen do well as the Princes, but Lilla Crawford has a harsh, one-note tone as Little Red Riding Hood and we need to stop deluding ourselves that Johnny Depp can sing.  He can perform many roles, but not singing ones and no he didn’t really sing Sweeney Todd, either.  It makes a difference, too.  Just watch Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson on Live from Lincoln Center to see a definitive version that relies on singing as well as acting.

Dion Beebe's Cinematography
     Where the movie falls short is in Dion Beebe’s cinematography.  Blue and muddy most of the time, it finally allows in some yellow for a celebration at the castle, but the color and lighting look like a British movie from the early 1950s, like The Magic Box, where they hadn’t quite got a handle on color film.  Here, it feels like Andrew Lesnie’s work for Peter Jackson where there’s always a muddle of grimy actors running around Middle Earth for some greater truth that ends up being less profound than it initially seems.  I usually end up hoping that the art director will just demand they wash up instead.

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