Monday, December 29, 2014



- Disney. Fairy tales. Musicals. It all goes together like chocolate and peanut-butter, right? In theory, yes, which is why I went into INTO THE WOODS feeling pretty good about this movie's chances. What I soon discovered, however, is that the film falls into the dreaded category of movie-adaptations-of-stage-musicals-that-still-feel-like-stage-musicals. I get that for fans of the stage play, there may be a certain thrill in seeing what they already know and love up on the big screen, spruced up with A-list acting talent and Hollywood f/x. But for everyone else, me included, I end up watching these sorts of films and wondering "why?" Film is a different medium than stage, and in theory you're not limited in a movie the same way you are in live performance. But INTO THE WOODS stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that. So we see the same locations pop up over and over. We see songs in which heroes frustratingly sing *about* great adventures, without us actually getting to see the adventures. And we have to go through the ritual of hearing lines meant to be delivered to the guy in the back of the auditorium, loudly and with a wink, delivered to no one in particular on-screen. Don't get me wrong, there are moments of INTO THE WOODS that really shine - and the cast is so good that they're able to sort of put the material on their backs and carry it to the finish line. But I felt like a lot had to have been lost in translation here. As is, this felt like a so-so album, from which I'd have preferred to just grab the big singles off iTunes rather than spring for the full enchilada.

Stephen Sondheim's stage version of Into the Woods first played to audiences in 1987, but before and since we've seen many, many iterations of this sort of revisionist fairy tale premise. Even in the world of Disney musicals, last year's Frozen utilized some similar tropes when skewering the traditional "Prince Charming" archetype. And so INTO THE WOODS' fractured fairy tale story feels only partly novel in this big screen adaptation. The tale centers around a humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who desperately want to have a child - but find themselves unable to conceive. It's soon revealed that their inability to have children is in fact due to a witch's curse, struck upon the baker's father and intended to affect his entire bloodline. However, the witch (Meryl Streep) is in a bargaining mood: she agrees to remove the curse, if the baker and his wife procure a collection of items needed for the witch to cast a spell that will remove her own curse, restoring her beauty. As it happens, the items the baker needs are all fairy tale staples, and as he seeks them out it leads he and his wife into the woods, where they stumble upon the likes of Cinderella, Prince Charming, Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, The Big Bad Wolf, and other storybook characters. The result is a greatest-hits version of many popular stories (many of which have, over the years, been themselves adapted into Disney films), except usually with a slight twist. The stories are all modified to better suit their interconnectedness, and each is given a darkly funny twist or two, in keeping with the film's arched-eyebrow approach to the classic fairy tales it gently skewers.

The problem is that the skewering is so gentle that it feels barely-there. Perhaps the film doesn't have quite the sharpened edge of the stage play, but it certainly doesn't have enough bite to feel all that novel, or even that funny. The film's funniest moments involve Chris Pine's Prince Charming, who - though we've seen this sort of take on the noble prince before - manages to be a high point with his over-the-top, self-involved swagger. Pine at least gets to play a character where the joke is clear. Meanwhile, other talented actors and performers are saddled with characters who feel only half-formed. Emily Blunt, for example, is absolutely giving it her all here and knocks all of her songs out of the park. But who is the Baker's Wife supposed to be, exactly? Some late-movie revelations about her character seem out-of-left-field and undercooked. And that's true of a lot of the movie's characters. The story tries to pack in so much that a lot of stuff feels rushed. I honestly had little idea what was going on with Meryl Streep's witch during the movie's second half. People who had seen the play later gave me the scoop. But the movie often seems to cut things short before we've even gotten the punchline or proper payoff.

Lack of payoff also means that, as mentioned, the movie seems unnecessarily beholden to the confines of the stage. Here's an example: Jack's big song about climbing his beanstalk and meeting (and stealing from) the giants who live in the clouds above. It's a fun song - and young actor Daniel Huttlestone nails it. But it also left me wondering why we were listening to Jack singing about giants rather than seeing Jack's adventures play out for ourselves. Director Rob Marshall - who also did the film version of Chicago - seems to forget that in a movie you can juxtapose whatever images you want over the songs. But instead of giants, we watch Jack swinging around a tree for ten minutes. Every so often, the stage-y direction works to the film's advantage - as when Chris Pine's Prince (who dotes after Anna Kendrick's Cinderella), and his brother, a Prince (played by Billy Magnussen, and who pines after Mackenzie Mauzy's Rapunzel) share a comedic song about their mutual anguish atop a waterfall. But more often than not, I was left wishing that the movie would break away from its source material and really go big with its visuals. Certainly, the subject matter calls for it.

What really keeps the film afloat is the cast. I've talked about Chris Pine and Emily Blunt, but Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, James Corden, and a host of others deserve credit for really giving it their all, and making most of the film's songs - even when they're not super-catchy - come off as spirited and energetic. I'll also give special mention to the movie's two kid leads - Daniel Huttlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood. Both are real scene-stealers, and they might just be the best performers, song-wise, in the movie. As for Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf? He's okay. The Wolf seems like sort of a wasted character in the film - he appears relatively briefly, and doesn't make much of an impression beyond the fact that his costume is really lame. I mean, come on, this is a musical about fairy tales - who decided that the Wolf was just going to be a creepy guy with a mustache? It's another of the movie's odd aesthetic choices that seems to stubbornly insist on preserving the look and feel of the stage. 

I initially was charmed by INTO THE WOODS big opening number, but it turned out that the film just keeps losing steams as it goes. By the film's conclusion, it had become incredibly draggy. There are some bright spots along the way, but mostly, the jokes lack punch, the riffs on fairy tale characters seem obvious and not particularly clever, and the songs - while performed ably by the cast - are not particularly memorable. Hardcore fans of the musical may find bits and pieces to latch onto,  but it seems that whatever wit and cleverness was in the original has been, mostly, sliced and diced from this version. For most, this one is bound to fall flat.

My Grade: C

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