Time to Remember
Adapting a well loved stage musical to screen is daunting , to be sure. You risk alienating die hard fans with tinkering with text and characters while trying to broaden the audience by streamlining the material to better fit a cinematic language. Musicals in general are a hard fit for modern audiences due to their innate unreality of characters randomly bursting into song, and the studios have had varying degrees of success in making them work. So I have to say after much breath holding and hand wringing in anticipation of the movie version of Into the Woods, I can firmly say that they didn't f**k it up. Woo hoo!
Director Rob Marshal thankfully did not stray too far from the path. He wisely worked closely with composer Stephen Sondheim and screenwriter James Lapine (who also wrote the original) in crafting a shorter piece that cuts a few songs and characters but retains most of the tone and themes of the Broadway classic.
The story is a potpourri/mash up of several classic Grimm Fairytales with the unifying thread of connection with original characters; a childless couple- the baker and his wife. They are visited by the witch from next door who informs them of the curse placed upon them , preventing them from ever having children. To "have the curse reversed" they must journey into the woods to retrieve items ( cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold) in three days time and then they will finally be blessed with offspring. Of course there they cross paths with Jack (of beanstalk fame), Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, and various famous fairytale denizens on their way to reach the prize. This takes place during the first half of the movie (in the show the quest of happy endings are the first act.)Then life happens and the consequences of choices made turn things much...Grimm-er. In most Disney versions of fairy tales end with getting the prize. One of the wonderful things about Sondheim and Lapines take is that it tells what happens after the happy ending, and the film does not shy away from the dark denouement of it's source material.
The material could have sunk in the mire of darkness and floundered if not for its amazing cast and Marshals' steadfast if uninspired direction. Standout among standouts almost goes without saying. Meryl Streep is a master class in song interpretation (now I really regret that she didn't get to do Evita as originally planned) and wrings every bit of truth and meaning in the Witches lyrics. I always knew Streep could sing, but she knocks it out of the park, especially with "Stay With Me" and "Last Midnight". I found her Witch to be much more sympathetic and truthful than in other incarnations, a victim of circumstance herself whose vitriol is more understandable in the context of being cursed herself and her desire to protect her daughter, Rapunzel. Granted, she kidnapped Rapunzel and hid her in a tower, but at that point she was only trying to be a good mother. The Witch knows of the dangers of the world, the cruelty that exists in others, and with that maternally universal wish of wanting the best for her child, she is undeniably human. Who doesn't want to save their children from ever having bad things happen to them?
Emily Blunt (the bakers wife) surprised me with her impressive vocals and vibrant humor. The bakers wife is stronger than her husband, unafraid of journeying into the woods to get what she wants and seemingly un-encumbered by any of the past familial baggage that haunts her husband. She charges headfirst, proving to be an equal if not superior partner in marriage. Even in a moment of mild infidelity (It was just kissing!!!) she realizes what really matters to her- her family. Sometimes you have to work through the temptations life throws in your path and it's the choices we make that see us through to the end
The Baker (James Corden) on the other hand is hindered by his lack of a father figure and that makes for a timid and cowardly character. Corden himself is likeable and brings great heart to the mousey role, but the greatest loss to his character was the cutting of "No More", the duet between he and his estranged Father. That song was the pinnacle of the Bakers character arc in the show, and without it, the film truncates his growth moment that propels the last act of the story. Without it, the Bakers growth just kind of happens.
Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) , a seasoned former Broadway actress, sings beautifully and gives a unique perspective of the classic role. Her running away from the Prince, which has nothing to do with the transformative spell of the Disney version , is more about not being sure that he is all that she thought he would be. Remember, at the ball, they did nothing but dance, which was nice because it wasn't her norm of cooking and cleaning for her step- mother and sisters (a marvelously cold Christine Baranski, with Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard rounding out the terrifically terrible trio). Her story is inevitably about escaping the confines of a bad family life, looking for a quick fix of marrying up (Come on, who wouldn't want to marry a prince!) and then realizing she was only in love with the idea of him. Chris Pine (Prince Charming) embodies that ideal with a preening cocky portrayal that has riotous results. The Prince only chases after the girl who ran away because...well...she ran away! No one had ever done that. Why would they? He is , after all sensitive, clever, well mannered, considerate, passionate, charming, as kind as he's handsome and heir to the throne? But as he says later, he was raised to be charming, not sincere. And to him, his relationship with Cinderella was always just about the chase. His duet with his brother (Billy Magnusson) is one of the funniest highlights of the film, where they pose and brood about their respective "Agony" at not getting the girl.
My least favorites of the cast were Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Lilla Crawford (Red) and Johnny Dep. For the former because of their age (both generally are played by teens, which given the lyrics of their respective songs, older is called for. Red should be a young girl on the verge of womanhood, warned of "straying from the path" , titillated by lurking and imminent dangers, while Jack should be an older teen boy, foolhardy and strong enough to chop down a beanstalk, and believable when he swears vengeance .) Neither of their ages belies the choices they make. The performances were very good, but just too young. And as of the latter, I am not sure why Johnny Depp was is in this movie. Nothing about him from his singing (Sondheim obviously juggled the keys for him, but to not a good effect) to his costume (the Tex Avery version of the big bad wolf?? Really??) , to his ...erm...wolfish desires to eat little Red (see:casting a too young Red just makes it creepy- and not in a good way!) His face (in my opinion) should have been covered in prosthetics, making a literal wolf rather than the local pedophile who wears funny hats with ears.
All in all, an imperfect movie, but with enough moments of brilliance that make it a journey I'm glad I made. Into the Woods basically a metaphor for life, which is filled with laughter, tears, love, heartbreak, mistakes, choices, admonitions, randomn violence, loss, growth, consequences, and hopefully enlightenment.. In the song "No one is alone", Cinderella and the Baker comfort Red and Jack by telling them no matter what, no matter who you have lost, they are always with them, part of them, their strengths and imperfections can help guide them. That's a parents legacy. Their words, their wisdoms, their mistakes all help shape who we are. Learn from them, and you will not be alone. (My interpretation, anyway.)
So yes , children will listen. They might not do what you say, but don't be fooled. They hear you.
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