Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Guest Post: Into the Woods (2014)

“Into The Woods, It’s Time To Go”

By Jonas Schwartz

Avid Broadway fans shivered when the news that Rob Marshall, who had already bungled film adaptations of the bestseller Memoirs of a Geisha and Tony-winner Nine, would be responsible for the cult treasure Into The Woods. The project became riskier because family friendly Walt Disney Studios would be producing this decidedly dark musical starring Meryl Streep, a magnificent actress but minor singer, and the flamboyant Johnny Depp. Would pixie dust spoil what makes these woods so special?

Three fairy tale regulars, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect), Jack The Giant Killer (Daniel Huttlestone, Les Miserables) and Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, Broadway revival of Annie) collide with a childless baker (New late night host James Corden) and wife (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada) as they all venture to the woods to get what they want.

The Stephen Sondheim fractured fairy tale Into The Woods has never been the most accessible musical. It’s truly brilliant, with poetry for lyrics, ones that tell a gripping story, solidify the characterizations and are witty. The melodic score features multifarious harmonies and memorable tunes that are both haunting and inspiring, such as “Children Will Listen” and “No One is Alone.” The original libretto, by James Lapine, is windier than the wooden path, colliding familiar children’s tales, and raising the sexual and violent subtext to the surface. But its intricacies distance the score and the story from audiences emotionally. The second act of this “blithe” musical features the violent deaths of most main characters and a subdued ending. For those reasons, this project was as hazardous as climbing through the woods.

The first asset of the film is hiring Lapine to form the screenplay. The script does not spoil the characters or water them down as many feared. Though the metaphor of sexuality is more latent, it’s still substantial. He and Sondheim cut some numbers that would not work in a filmic atmosphere and tighten up Act II without losing its potency.

However not everything in the screenplay works perfectly. In a more literal format such as film, there’s something repetitive and callous about Cinderella going to the ball and running away, going the next night and running away, going a third night and running away once again. In the play, it feels symbolic, a representative of a girl torn between who she is in the exterior and whom she feels she is in the interior.  In the movie, the girl appears fickle.

Also more problematic in the film, one of the main character’s fate in act two feels more punitive, like the victim of a ‘80s slasher movie who deserves what happens due to loose living. Lapine removes the act one finale and act two opener, which may have made cinematic sense, but leaves an abrupt gap between the magical world of act one and the horrific repercussions faced in act two.

Marshall fills the mise-en-scene with all the splendor the tale deserves. His regular cinematographer, Dion Beebe, whose Oscar winning photography was the best part of Memoirs of a Geisha, creates a grand scope for this world of giants, witches, and princes and allows the camera to dance as a musical’s should. He’s supported by Dennis Gassner’s plush production design.

Marshall’s greatest asset is his cast. Streep may not be a singer, but she finds all the humor and the malice in the conniving witch. Blunt brings urgency to the Baker’s Wife who has been minimized by her husband and lacks a magical life of her own. Kendrick is grounded and heartfelt as Cinderella. Corden is frazzled but determined as the Baker who wants to end his family’s curse. Crawford, in her film debut, steals the film as the gluttonous Red Riding Hood. She is hilariously precocious while not being bratty. She doesn’t allow Depp to overwhelm her in their number together “Hello Little Girl.” As the supercilious princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen turn the comedy number “Agony” into a spoof of an ‘80s Taylor Dayne music video starring Fabio. Pine camps up his dashing persona with a knowing wink.

Every time a musical movie is produced, fans of the genre hold their breath praying for success since Hollywood will only invest in a genre when it guarantees big box office.  It’s unclear if Disney will have a financial hit on their hands, or if this film will open the floodgates for future adaptations, but at least with Into The Woods, they have created a charming addition to the musical realm.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

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