Thursday, December 25, 2014

"Into the Woods"

 3 / 5 

"Then I went into the woods to get my wish," sings the witch in the stage version of Into the Woods, adding to her lament: "And now I'm ordinary."

The same could be said for Rob Marshall's long-awaited cinematic adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, for which Lapine wrote the screenplay and, unexpectedly, rid it of the heart that makes it work so effectively in front of a live audience.  And although it's produced by Disney, which famously strips its heroes and heroines of parents so they might be able to accomplish great things, the movie version of Into the Woods lacks one central relationship that generally makes the whole thing work.

The missing relationship is between the Baker (James Corden), a made-up fairy-tale archetype, and his father -- who, on stage, turns out to be the narrator of the show.  Perhaps the most crucial song to the entire show is the one in which the Baker reveals his biggest and most unexpected frustration about parenthood: It's too damned hard.  He and his wife (Emily Blunt) have risked everything for a child, and now that they have one all he can do is worry about it and fear he's a terrible, neglectful father.

The Baker's wish is the single most important wish in Into the Woods, but the movie version really only treats it as a Hitchcockian MacGuffin -- the thing that makes the story happen in the first place.  In this version, it is as dispensable as the microfilm or the secret plans of a Hitchcock film; it doesn't matter what it is, only that it's sought after in the first place.

Into the Woods begins with the Baker's wish, in a brilliant, jaunty opening that promises no end of mirth and malevolently tinged merriment that also introduces a handful of other key characters: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes so much to go to the ball; Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), who wish for wealth; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who wishes to see her granny in the woods; the charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), who wish for wives who will love and adore them; and the Witch (Meryl Streep), who wishes for her own daughter, Rapunzel, to love her with equal ferocity.

The musical montage that introduces them is promising, but it's not too long before all the characters actually are in the woods -- which are dark and glum, and not only in the metaphorical way.  Into the Woods has a generally joyless physical appearance, one that feels perpetually too dim and flat.  The woods are neither realistic nor stylized enough to be thoroughly engaging -- and with the large cast of characters, which seems oddly larger and more unmanageable than the stage version, it's sometimes a chore for the audience to keep up with exactly who is where and what they are doing.

Cutting the musical's lengthy book to a size that can accommodate five showings a day, Into the Woods pares down the roles of some characters and cuts out entire songs in ways that are mostly unobtrusive and sometimes even appreciated.  In trade-off, what it achieves is greater clarity of some key relationships and often chipper amusement -- particularly in the song "Agony," a terrifically shot duet between Princes Charming that has much of the airiness and joy that is woefully missing from so much of the film.

The actors, with the notable exception of Johnny Depp in a pointless cameo as the Big Bad Wolf, sing with gusto; there is rarely a moment in which the singing feels forced, and Sondheim's notoriously tongue-twisting lyrics work better in context than, perhaps, they should.  This isn't Rodgers & Hammerstein (or even Kander & Ebb), so don't come out expecting to be humming the big show-stopping tune -- in fact, there isn't one, which is bound to frustrate audiences not already familiar with the source material.

So, what it boils down to is whether the basic story and structure of Into the Woods work cinematically, and the unfortunate reality is: They don't.  It all feels unexpectedly off-balance, hesitant, an uncertainty worsened by the missing relationship between the Baker and his father.  Of the many, many characters here, the one whose actions and decisions matter the most is the Baker; a key decision he makes, one rife with consequences, gets much careful consideration on stage but is essentially thrown away here.  Whether the film works emotionally depends on how the audience perceives this particular decision; omitting the rationale for it reduces the entire affair to some clever theatrics.

In part, the excision of that key sone has been made to play up Meryl Streep's role as the Witch.  No surprise, she's quite good (and delivers two key songs with great gusto), but her presence can't hide that her only comments on, and doesn't drive, the action.  She appears and reappears intermittently, and the result is that neither she nor the Baker become the center of attention.  The film version of Into the Woods wants audiences to sympathize with everyone, but while that may be possible in a musical, it doesn't work in this film.  To make such a sprawling cast work together requires the finesse of someone like Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, it's not a touch Marshall has. Into the Woods ends up feeling like a musicalized 1970s disaster movie, moving from character to character -- only, in this case, without a real climax.

I don't really know what to make of Into the Woods.  I liked parts of it very much and didn't really dislike any element of it enough to be entirely disappointed.  (Notable exception: Johnny Depp's frankly terrible few minutes as the Wolf.)  Despite the inordinate amount of time I spent squinting through the murkiness, I laughed, my eyes misted up a couple of times, and I was undeniably entertained, especially by the fact that such fairy tale subversion comes from Disney.

But Into the Woods is in no way as definitive a musical adaptation as Marshall's incomparable Chicago.  It feels largely like one of NBC's notorious live productions: there's nothing specifically wrong to fault, the actors are all clearly game, and a lot of effort has been put into it, but it feels like a technical endeavor more than a passion project.

The formidable task here was to create a film version of a cerebral Stephen Sondheim musical -- as close to melodic a show as he is likely ever to create.  Into the Woods succeeds at translating a well-known musical to the movies and succeeding moderately well, but it doesn't do much more than that.

Viewed Dec. 25, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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