Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Grim Fairy Tales

Year: 2014
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, James Corden
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The transition from stage to screen is not an easy one. Musicals rely on the energy of the audience, so pre-packaging a living and breathing live show into one endlessly reusable piece is a tricky endeavor. Sometimes it's a successfully thrilling conversion (Little Shop of Horrors, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), sometimes it's downright repugnant (Bye Bye Birdie, The Phantom of the Opera), and sometimes it's a magnificently slapdash spectacle of glitter and misguided cameos (Rock of Ages, Mamma Mia!). Into the Woods, adapted from Steven Sondheim's 1986 stage show, is a little bit of all three, though it survives on the strength of one of the most effective celebrity casts in recent memory.

I'm definitely not being biased by Chris Pine's hair. Definitely.

Into the Woods combines several different fairy tales into one dark, cohesive tapestry about coming of age, parenthood, exploring the world outside one's humdrum life, and learning to accept responsibility. The cast of familiar characters includes Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Prince Charming (Chris Pine), who meet at a ball under magical circumstances against the wishes of an Evil Stepmother (Christine Baranski); Jack (Daniel Huttlestone of Les Misérables) and his Beanstalk of Opportunity; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who encounters a Wolf (Johnny Depp) on the way to her grandmother's house; and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), trapped up in her tower patiently waiting to let her hair down for the right Prince (Billy Magnussen).

When a childless Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) learn of a curse placed upon their household by the Witch (Meryl Streep) next door, they set off on an adventure to find four magical objects to reverse the spell before three nights pass. On their journey, they split up and regroup and encounter various other characters making their merry way through the woods. It's basically one of those chase scenes from Scooby Doo, with characters popping in and out of closets and running into one another all across the forest.

Also like Scooby Doo, there's a creepy live action dog.

As a medium for showcasing the syncopated rhythms and delicate wordplay of Sondheim's compositions with crispness and clarity, Into the Woods is an unequivocal success. Although the cast is star-studded, many of them have previously proven themselves as vocal talents in films or on the Great White Way: Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski in Mamma Mia!, Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect, Lilla Crawford in Annie... And Johnny Depp? Well, he really isn't in very much of the film.

And the newcomers are of a piece startlingly suited for the challenge. Emily Blunt has a clear, chirpy voice that isn't tested by overly-challenging pieces, and Chris Pine has a rich, dreamy baritone that really needs to be taken advantage of in larger roles. Or at least televised karaoke pajama parties.

The film shines brightest during its first half, during which the fairy tales are enacted in fairly traditional, but uniquely overlapping nature. The cheerful chaos of the characters' various collisions is upbeat and energetic, mixed with some highly theatrical (and occasionally suspension of disbelief-shattering) lighting, staging, and costume design, especially in the otherwise unprepossessing Wolf sequence.

I mean, it's hard to make the Little Red tale look drab. *coughcoughAmandaSeyfried*

The actors feel most comfortable when they're embracing the "Whee! It's a musical!" aspect of these scenes. Not that any of them are untalented in other registers, but fairy tale characters rely on broad stereotypes and tonally the performers can find their match with ease. Chris Pine is dashing, Anna Kendrick is woebegone, Lilla Crawford is brash and outgoing. Wham bam, thank you ma'am. 

The sheer amount of fun they must be having just pours from the screen. Every one of the film's best sequences comes from this pure joy: the sprawling and fantastical opening number, Cinderella's spritely dash from the Prince, Little Red's encounter with the Baker, and the dashing, hilarious, campy idiocy of "Agony," the Princes' duet and the unimpeachable high-water mark of the entire show.

I suppose I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Meryl Streep's Oscar-nominated performance as the Witch, but there's not much there to talk about. Streep is a treasure, of course, but her old crone is not much more than an over-the-top, crack-addled spinster. To be fair, that's what the role calls for, but she's not exactly punishing herself to find the core of her character. But she has a superb belt and knocks all of her songs out of the park and that's more than I could ever ask for.

A superb belt, yes, but a superb dress and wig, too.

However, once the film makes a drastic tonal shift into the darker side of the fairy tale universe, the film loses its mooring. The performers strain to find purpose and the music dries up, becoming both less frequent and more self-serious. It is here that the Disneyfication of the show takes full effect as the film shies away from the original show's more morbid plot points.

The third act drags like an anchor as the company tones down the death, sex, and violence, removes some key scenes entirely, and plods on through to its now unmotivated conclusion. Frankly, the final third is an unholy mess, pushing a stone over the film's well of lively buoyancy and letting it die an ignominious subterranean death.

The film strains to reach the finish line and sputters, coughs, and dies three feet from the ribbon. The finale song, cut down to a wanly fading overdubbed monstrosity, is more like a funeral knell than a full-circle denouement. 

But all in all, the film ain't half bad. If you can stomach the unappetizing finale, Into the Woods is worth your time, especially if you've never expereinced the joy of seeing the show staged live. Despite its watered-down ambitions, it really is the next best thing. The cast is remarkably game to bring the songs to life, the setting is charmingly serene, and the music will be playing in your head all week. Maybe just take a nap when you hit the 90-minute mark.

TL;DR: Into the Woods is a lively fun musical that is brought down by a tampered-with finale.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1058

1 comment:

  1. Reviews have got me nervous about seeing this, B., as I suppose I eventually must. But I wonder if not having seen the stage show in twenty years might help me out, by not being able to compare it.?

    P.S.: Potemkin?! Too rad, man.