Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Never Thought I'd Be So Happy (With This Film)

Movie Review: Into the Woods

James Cordon as the Baker and Meryl Streep as the Witch in Disney's Into the Woods.

After what seems like an eternity, Disney's highly anticipated film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods has finally arrived in theatres. The good news is that the internet's concerns about the film's fidelity to the source material are almost entirely unfounded; this is an incredibly faithful and respectful adaptation of the beloved stage show. Even better news is that the movie is a very good and at times even great film in its own right, featuring an excellent cast and a suitable dose of movie magic to make this fractured fairy tale truly sing on the big screen. Purists will no doubt have their complaints, but for most fans and the uninitiated this is an excellent representation of a contemporary classic from one of musical theatre's undisputed masters.

For those who don't know, Into the Woods weaves the well-known fairy tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel together with an original tale about a childless Baker and his Wife. Early in the film, the Baker discovers that his family has been cursed by the village's resident Witch, and the only way to lift the spell is to collect four magical objects before the impending blue moon. What follows is a series of misadventures that ultimately subverts the notion of "happily ever after" while also exploring what happens when you get exactly what you want, only to find that it wasn't at all like you expected.

The musical's original librettist James Lapine adapts his own script into a very smart condensation of the stage show. Into the Woods has always been a marvel of tight pacing, so the fact that Lapine managed to trim things in way that doesn't sacrifice plot is truly impressive. Cut musical numbers are replaced with scenes that cover the same story beats, and the bridging of the musical's two distinct acts is handled about as well as conceivably possible. Sondheim has tweaked some lyrics where necessary, and listening to Jonathan Tunick's symphonic arrangements is like hearing this score afresh. Even the musical numbers that didn't make the film are represented via underscore in their same approximate locations, and truly sharp-eared fans will catch a surprising reference to one of Sondheim's other Tony-winning musicals.

Speaking of the fans, those afraid Disney would sanitize the musical's darker edges can rest easy. Pretty much everything that happens onstage happens in the movie, with the difference being the film tends to only imply things the stage version made more explicit. There's even a surprisingly sexual "Hello, Little Girl" that somehow slipped past the censors, proving that director Rob Marshall and company weren't lying when they insisted they were doing a very faithful adaptation.

Rob Marshall's direction is somewhere between his Oscar-nominated work on Chicago and his more questionable choices on the underwhelming Nine. His kinetic camerawork certainly keeps things interesting, although the constantly revolving camera sometimes distracts from the storytelling rather than enhances it. Marshall smartly limits his use of special effects to some key moments, which keeps the magic feeling magical without overwhelming the characters. His production team has lovingly designed the film with lavish sets and costumes, although the film tends so dark it can be difficult to make out the details.

One thing Marshall and his team have absolutely nailed is the casting, with nary a weak link among the story's dozen or so principal and secondary characters. Oscar-winner Meryl Streep is clearly having a blast as the Witch, making a veritable feast out of the "Witch's Rap" and chewing the scenery in the best possible way. Streep also sings like a dream, ranging from breathy intimacy to full throttle belting over the course of her musical numbers. Her tour de force performance of "Last Midnight" meets even the loftiest expectations and definitely proves that whether or not he intended to, Sondheim wrote a genuine showstopper when he added the song after the musical's out of town tryout.

The always enjoyable Emily Blunt is excellent as the Baker's Wife, a natural comedienne with a surprisingly strong voice and effortlessly natural line delivery. Her chemistry with James Corden's Baker is palpable, with the latter also doing a fine job with his character's more emotional scenes during the movie's second half. Anna Kendrick continues to prove adept at just about anything she sets her mind to, even if the more intimate medium of film highlights that some key points of Cinderella's emotional growth occur off screen. Her "Steps of a Palace" is a knockout, aided by Marshall's brilliant decision to play the entire song as a split second decision that occurs while Cinderella is being chased by the Prince.

Speaking of the Prince, Chris Pine isn't quite as at home in a movie musical as many of his costars, but that doesn't stop him from being a perfectly aloof foil to Kendrick's introspective Cinderella. Pine and Billy Magnussen's gloriously campy "Agony" is nearly perfect in its beefcake-skewering brilliance, second only to Streep's "Last Midnight" on the list of the film's standout moments. Lilla Crawford makes for a hilariously deadpan Little Red, and Daniel Huttlestone brings a genuine boyish glee to the role of Jack. Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, and Johnny Depp all make strong impressions despite limited screentime, and the uniformly excellent cast is one of the movie's strongest assets.

Into the Woods is ultimately about as good an adaptation as one could hope for. Purists will certainly find things to nitpick, and fans will no doubt miss some of the cut songs (I'm particularly sorry we lost the Witch's "A bear?/Bears are sweet..." segment from the Act II opening), but overall this is an incredibly faithful adaptation in spirit, tone, and execution. The plot and themes remain virtually unchanged from the stage version, with Marshall and his game cast embracing the opportunities offered by the big screen without abandoning what has made this such an enduringly popular property in the first place. It won't replace the invaluable recording of the original Broadway production, but it is an excellent companion piece and definitely worth seeking out.

No comments:

Post a Comment