Mar 9, 2015

[Movies] Into the Woods (2014)

I often remark that the works of Stephen Sondheim are pretty much sacred to me. And as we trace that road back and back, we'll always end up with Into the Woods, which remains to be my favorite Sondheim musical. And when news of a movie adaptation came out, I wasn't all that excited. Hollywood's track record when it comes to such adaptations is less than stellar plus the fact that this is a rather complex story with some rather adult themes. Throw in the fact that it was confirmed that Disney was handling the production, and I was really worried.

But I tried to keep the faith given this Into the Woods movie still had Stephen Sondheim involved in the production. So that had to be good news, right? And to be fair, Disney made sure to include a lot of top acting talent in this movie, including the one and only Meryl Streep.

And while the movie seems to have done well at the box office and had generally favorable reviews, I can't help but feel like it was missing something. And yes, I'm probably speaking more as a fan of the original theater production and thus I'm breaking my usual "rule" of trying to separate the adapted work from its source material, but it's really hard not to given how important the production is to me. Still, at least it wasn't terrible.

Synopsis: Into the Woods is the 2014 musical fantasy movie adaptation of the stage musical of the same name with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. The movie was directed by Rob Marshall with a screenplay by James Lapine. The movie also received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Supporting Actress  along with three Golden Globe nominations.

The story involves a significant number of characters who all have to journey into the titular woods in order to get what they most desire. The main flavor here is the fact that the characters are mostly derived from popular fairy tales including the likes of Rapunzel. In this case, things really kick off with the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) when they're visited by the Witch (Meryl Streep), who lives next door. Apparently she has cursed the Baker's family from ever having children due to a past transgression, but now she's offering them a way to get the curse undone. But in order to get their wish, they'll need to venture into the woods and find the ingredients the Witch needs for her spell - and they only have three nights to accomplish this deed.

Other characters who venture into the woods include Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who so wishes to go to the King's festival and thus seeks the help of her dead mother, whose grave now has a massive tree marking it. There's young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who has been sent by his mother (Tracy Ullman) to go to the next village to sell their cow, Milky White. Red Riding Hood (Lillia Crawford) is off to visit her grandmother while Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) remains a prisoner of the witch in some secret tower within the woods. And their various stories end up intersecting soon enough along with two charming princes also finding their way through the woods for reasons of their own.

First, the movie has some really solid actors and thus you can't really find too much fault in this area for the most part. Practically everyone did a rather stellar job, except maybe for James Corden, who felt a little understated in his performance as the Baker. When Red Riding Hood and Jack have character than one of the principle figures in the movie, that says a lot. Meryl Streep certainly made the Witch her own character, but the end result is still really strong even if not quite what I've come to expect from the character over the years. Anna Kendrick was really on point here and she probably managed a performance that is closest so what I've come to love when it comes to the stage productions of this story.

The core story of the musical production is certainly here as well. Despite stuff that had been cut out due to necessity such as the involvement of the Narrator or the character of the Mysterious Man, what was left was still a pretty solid story that was also quite faithful to the original narrative. As much as a lot of songs couldn't be included in the film due to time constraints, at least they were able to find a way to still keep the bulk of the story in there. And that's quite a challenge on its own for any stage-to-screen adaptation.

On its own, it's a good story with some interesting moments and surprising character twists here and there. The movie is pretty solid in what us theater folks understand to be the 1st Act of the story, but kinda got a little lost during the 2nd Act. So for folks who never saw the stage musical before, it's a pretty good film and thus the great box office results last December.

But for theater folks and Sondheim nerds like me, the movie feels like it's missing something, that bit of heart that really made it speak to so many people over the years. Maybe it's the loss of the campier humor that nicely defined the original production but seemed highly muted in this movie version. Maybe it was a desire to be very dark and gritty, including having Chris Pine maintain a 5 o'clock shadow despite being a Prince Charming. I can understand why a lot of these changes were made and I'm thankful we didn't end up with a weird epic fantasy version of this story as we've seen with recent Hollywood ventures.

Into the Woods is still a really strong story and its core message sings true in this movie version of the play. It's not quite what I had hoped, but admittedly it's still better than expected. Thus the movie gets a good 3.5 grim and gruesome fair tale moments out of a possible 5.


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