As we wrap up 2014, we take a look at Sondheim’s famous musical Into the Woods, reimagined on screen. Directed by Rob Marshall, the film stars Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and Chris Pine. It is Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
Into the Woods takes some of the most famous fairy tales of all time and ties them all together by an original story featuring a baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt), and their attempt to lift the curse of a wicked witch (Streep).
5.5 out of 10
I am, unashamedly so, a theater kid. If you asked me what home was to me, I would tell you that home was ‘the four building’, the area of my school where the auditorium is. I’ve helped to direct numerous shows, from A Chorus Line to Hello, Dolly! But I’ll be honest, I’m not all too familiar with Sondheim’s stage version of Into the Woods. This was the first time I’d experienced the entire thing from start to finish. However, I do know the basic gist of the story and Rob Marshall’s film stayed pretty true to it, hold for one or two parts. But this is a blog reviewing movies and not plays, so of course I have to stay on course. Therefore, I’m going to try and look at it through two different lenses: one as a theatergoer and the other as a moviegoer.
Looking at it compared to the show, the movie is generally the same. The main characters are the same, the plot is the same, the music is mostly the same. But there are a few differences. First, the two Princes, played wonderfully by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, are utilized a lot less than they are in the show and a lot less than I would have liked. There is an entire subplot cut out about the Princes having affairs that really would have given the movie the humor it lacked while also making the ending more sensible. Secondly, there is a character in the show named ‘The Mysterious Man’. Now here’s a bit of a spoiler for the stage version, but the Mysterious Man ends up being the Baker’s father, and plays a huge part in the Baker’s motivations and his character in general. This motivation is highly lacking in the film, and while Corden is still very solid, he is definitely not helped by this vacant hole in character motivation.
A friend described a Sondheim show to me as “Love it, love it, when the hell will this be over, love it!” For me, it was just ‘when the hell will this be over’ the entire time. It felt begrudgingly long. The first two-thirds of the movie, which follow the first act of the show, was good but not great. But the last third, which follows the second act of the show, was where the film completely lust its luster and the little interest I had left totally disappeared. The second act of the show is dark and that is why it is so good. The last third of the film lacked this emotional depth, part of the reason I lost interest.
Now that’s looking at it compared to the stage version. As a movie, Into the Woods does a lot of things right. The set design, costume design, makeup, and all those visual effects are downright stunning. Everything is spot on in creating such a perfect fairy tale universe. Marshall, an avid supporter of practical effects over CGI, uses real set pieces and they look great. Kendrick and Pine reportedly got lost on set one day because the set pieces were so gargantuan to the point where they lost their way in the production building.
The cast is also pretty remarkable. I don’t have a complaint against any one of them. Chris Pine was surprisingly great and one of the only sources of humor. Anna Kendrick was stunning and the two kids, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, were both cute and charming. James Corden was really good, despite his character being slightly ruined like I mentioned. Johnny Depp, though criminally underused, was solid. Meryl Streep, despite her character being more whiny and pathetic than wicked, was good as always. Though, to be honest, I feel like some of the laud she is getting is because she’s Meryl Streep rather than her being incredible. SHADE THROWN! She’s still pretty good.
Now as I said, I got really bored and uninterested and I think this is due to Rob Marshall’s failure at nailing the right tone. The casual moviegoer never thinks about tone as to why they didn’t like the movie, but it really is the reason they don’t. Marshall was going for family friendly (hence the PG rating) and didn’t go far enough with the dark stuff, which, like I said, is part of the reason the second act is so great. Anyhow, since he’s going for this light-hearted family friendly tone but is also using darker lighting and eerier camera shots to do so, they conflict and leave the audience stuck in limbo; “should I be laughing or crying? Scared or happy? I don’t know, maybe I just won’t do either”. That, mixed with failed attempts at humor, made the movie pretty boring.
When talking with other theater people, a lot seemed to really enjoy the movie. They said it was true to the stage version and the performances were great. And taking Into the Woods and adapting it into a film is a tall task. I was turned off by it’s length and its inability to justify the depth of Sondheim’s stage version, but this should not stop you from seeing it. The fact that Rob Marshall cast away the dark tone to gain younger viewers is annoying. However, it is a visual spectacle and all the singing and acting is pretty great. It is a better movie than it is adaptation, so if you don’t care for it as an adaptation, then it is definitely worth a view.
7.5 out of 10
I’m not much of a musical person, both in the instrument and stage-show sense. I played the violin through ninth grade but stopped because I had to face the fact that I can’t keep a beat or play the right tone 95% of the time so I just mess the whole thing up. And I can’t sing worth a damn either (though in my humble opinion my falsetto is spot-on).
How odd, then, that I enjoyed this movie significantly more than Vig, the theater director who is around musicals for hours each day. Maybe there are some theater sins the director or actors committed that I just didn’t pick up on, but Rob Marshall has directed multiple musicals before and had working with him the man who originally penned the Into the Woods score, so I doubt that. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we sat three rows back from the screen and had to crane our necks the entire time.
What follows are my observations as a movie, not necessarily musical, fan.
Into the Woods is impeccably cast. We knew Anna Kendrick had serious vocal talent from her role in Pitch Perfect, and she delivered yet again as Cinderella. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, as Red Ridinghood and Jack were both fantastic, but again we already expected great performances from them given Huttlestone’s role in the film adaptation of Les Miserables just a few years ago and Crawford’s titular role in the Broadway show “Annie”. It was the typically dramatic or comedic celebrities that had surprising vocal strength that really wowed me. Meryl Streep as the Witch had numerous solos, and though at first it seemed as if the directors were trying to hide her voice, by the end she was alternatively belting out some songs and crooning others. She was great. Chris Pine, as Prince Charming, was another one of those actors who was pleasantly surprising. He often provided much needed levity and comedic breaks. Even Johnny Depp was fantastic as the Wolf, underused as he was. His voice was just a little bit gravelly, which actually worked for his character as the sly but dangerous wolf. All these characters were great, but Emily Blunt was my favorite. I was already a fan of hers after watching Edge of Tomorrow, among other things, and the fact that she’s married to John Krasinski from “The Office” just makes me love her that much more. Objectively, though, she sang beautifully and, like Pine, provided that comic break right when the movie started to seem a bit too ridiculous. Most of these funny moments came when she poked fun at the sheer silliness of Into the Woods as a play and as a movie.
I’m having a little trouble reviewing this next part. I want to talk about the plot but have arrived at an issue: do I fault the movie for the straining plot, or can I not take away points from it given that the movie’s plot was tied directly to the play’s plot and thus couldn’t fix its length and repetition? I think the movie has to be taken as a whole, and so its ties to the musical have to be ignored for the moment, so here goes:
The first two thirds of the movie were great. I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to some of the most iconic characters in the fairy tale world and the A-list actors portraying them. The songs were catchy and groovy, the jokes were frequent, and the characters’ banter was hilarious. Then the movie seemed to end, albeit in in a corny fashion. The character’s had run their course and the running time had reached an hour and a half – the perfect timing for a kids’ movie and a musical that will start grating on the nerves before long. But then the play just kept going, and it was bereft of but a few songs for the entire remaining 40 minutes. It was just the actors falling into caricatures that quickly grew tiring, and that enchanted feeling that was palpable in the theater up to that point was shattered by people shifting in their seats and checking their phones. What Into the Woods had was lost, but again, how much of that is to blame on the moviemakers and how much is to blame on the source material?
Ultimately the final third of the movie is not able to drag down the ethereal first two thirds, and with the vocal and dramatic talent that the film boasts, Into the Woods will prove to be a massive box-office success, even if it comes away relatively empty this awards season. It would be a shame if none of these actors get nominated for an Oscar (Blunt and Streep were nominated for Golden Globes, but in the diluted comedy and musical category), but don’t expect them to take golden statues away from any of the many accomplished actresses vying for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Into the Woods is also nominated for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, but it won’t usurp the superior Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Then again, the Golden Globes are as much about star power as cinematic power, and Into the Woods has star power in excess.