Thursday, January 1, 2015

Review - Into the Woods

Often I wish more than anything... more than life... that Hollywood would provide us with more movie musicals than it currently does. We musical theatre lovers are lucky if we can get one live-action song-and-dance film a year. Luckier yet if its a good one.

It puts me in a situation as sticky as pitch when it comes to evaluating the big screen adaptation of a stage musical that I don't love nearly as much as the genre it represents. The show in question is Sondheim & Lapine's Into the Woods, translated into cinematic form by director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) and positioned as Disney's big holiday season draw.
The original production which debuted on Broadway in 1988 could best be described as a revisionist fairytale: The paths of various familiar Grimm characters intersect en route to their storybook endings as they venture through the woods. Among them are Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack of eventual beanstalk infamy (Daniel Huttlestone), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), a pair of vain if charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), and a scheming witch (Meryl Streep).

The first act plays out as a perfectly droll post-modern musical comedy, but uninitiated audiences may be thrown for a loop when things become practically Shakespearean in the second half. I myself didn't know quite what to make of its abrupt tonal shifts when first introduced to it, and struggled to connect with some of its more bizarre narrative decisions.

I know things now – many valuable things – that I hadn't known before about the play's themes and subtext regarding familial relationships, although it still doesn't quite come together for me as profoundly as it intends.

Am I cursed to never get this show? Can the curse be reversed?

I know I wished for more screen musicals, but am I certain what I wish is what I want?

How can I enjoy a movie based on something I already know I don't love, especially in this love-it-or-hate-it genre?
The only manner of assessment that makes sense (to me, anyway) is to try and distill what I believe Rob Marshall and company have done right/wrong from what I believe Sondheim & Lapine's original invention did right/wrong. There are plenty of examples to jot down in both columns.

The actual adaptation, which was written by James Lapine himself (author of the stage book), consists of no radical changes. In fact, the extent of Lapine's 'rewriting' basically amounts to him taking a big black marker and excising any minor character or subplot that could be sacrificed to save time. The bulk of his original dialogue remains untouched.

This treatment has its pros and cons. The slimmer runtime allows his book's thematic framework to become more visible, and he's probably managed to avoid pissing off too many ardent fans. The unfortunate side effect, however, is that a number of the scenes end up feeling rushed and unstructured. Slow down, Mr. Lapine! What's your rush? You're missing all the flowers. The sun won't set for hours. Take your time.

And what of Rob Marshall's direction: Is it a mess? Is it a dream? Or does it live somewhere in between?
Film being a more concrete medium than the theatre makes it incredibly risky to stylize the musical numbers, but the gamble is not necessarily an unworthy one. Marshall's Oscar-winning Chicago was memorably elevated from its source material by choreographing its songs as elaborate stage routines that unfolded in the main character's mind (He later employed the exact same technique to diminishing returns in Nine).

But whether considered a stroke of genius or a chintzy gimmick, one had to give Marshall credit for committing to that unifying vision (love it or hate it). His choices on Into the Woods, however, are maddeningly inconsistent. Only some numbers get the experimental approach, but many others are staged with plain literalism. In either case the results are hit and miss.

Cinderella's big solo “On the Steps of the Palace”, for instance, is wonderfully re-imagined as a time-freeze soliloquy which allows Anna Kendrick the time and space to expressively warble through a tricky libretto while still retaining the urgency of the moment.

Little Red's introspective “I Know Things Now”, on the other hand, while undoubtedly well sung by Lilla Crawford (star of the 2012 Annie revival on Broadway), asks the audience to suspend a bit too much of its disbelief: Who knew the inside of a wolf looked like purple bedsheets?

Of the songs that don't fuss too much with flashback editing or dodgy effects, the outcomes are equally sporadic. Some wisely use the intimacy of the camera to lend additional heft and nuance to Sondheim's poetic lyrics, as in Meryl Streep's rendition of “Stay With Me”. Ditto, Emily Blunt's take on “Moments in the Woods”.

There are others, however, that could have benefited from a little creativity. The bland blocking of Jack's melodious ballad “Giants in the Sky” doesn't give Daniel Huttlestone much to do beyond swinging from the lowest hanging branches of a tree – an apt metaphor for how that scene was handled. And the less said about Johnny Depp's cameo as The Wolf, the better.
Wait... actually, let's say more about it, because a miscalculation this glaring cannot go undiscussed. Disney may have hoped that in choosing an actor as cartoonish as Depp, they could sand down the pedophilic edges of The Wolf's “Hello, Little Girl” sequence. Anyone familiar with the, er, 'packaging' of the wolf costume from the original Broadway production will attest to its sexual overtones.

Of course, the only way they could have steered clear of this ick factor would be to fantasize the character as an actual... you know... wolf. Surely they could have sprung for a CG canine and picked a voice-over artist capable of Sondheim's musical complexities, since the best Depp can do is a slightly rhythmic spoken word interpretation.

And yet the woeful miscasting of Depp in this bit part isn't nearly as severe a mistake as allowing him to suggest his own costume, in which he looks more like a fur-loving pimp with a poorly combed mustache than a wolf of any kind. It's the one inexorable blemish on Colleen Atwood's otherwise inventive clothing rack, and if I were her I'd be the first to point at Depp and sing, “So it's your fault! See, it's his fault! And it isn't mine at all!”

But then there are inspired casting decisions to take into account: Kendrick, Blunt, and Corden are all particularly effective, but the most pleasantly surprising player is Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince Charming. He has charm for a prince, I guess, but he's richer yet in comedic delivery, best showcased during the hilarious “Agony” number in which he and costar Billy Magnussen sing their shirts off in a duel of sexpot one-upsmanship.
I suppose the point my rambling review is trying to make is that Disney's Into the Woods gets plenty of things right and gets plenty of things wrong, but where does that leave me?

Wrong things, right things... who can say what's true?

Should I love it, or should I hate it?

Is it always "or"? Is it never "and"?

The best I can do is say that I love it and I hate it. So often it makes me cringe, but its flourishes of brilliance are enough to feed my optimism for the genre and keep me going until the next stage-to-film adaptation comes along. For now, I never thought I'd be so happy to turn on my selective memory, and relive this love-it-and-hate-it movie's finest moments.

That's what woods are for: For those moments in the woods.

**1/2 out of ****


  1. Do you think ms Atwood deserve a nomination despite that wolf costume?

    1. I certainly won't begrudge her a nomination, but it'd be a shame to see her actually win a fourth Oscar for a wardrobe with such a conspicuous eyesore (especially after Alice in Wonderland. Ugh.)