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INTO THE WOODS (review)

into_the_woodsINTO THE WOODS

Written by James Lapine / Directed by Rob Marshall / Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine

Cinderella: I wish.

Reportedly in development since the early 90’s, Disney is finally ready to release Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS, a star studded musical that is far more family friendly than the original. It is still a Disney film after all. The film is directed by Rob Marshall,  who is clearly no stranger to the musical genre, having brought us the incredible screen adaptation of CHICAGO and the barely watchable adaptation of NINE. Sondheim’s story of what happens after “happily ever after” is cherished by many audience goers and performers; personally, I know three different people who have either starred in, or produced a version of the musical, which is more than I can say for any other stage production. Marshall’s version is visually stunning at times but is ultimately a rather lacklustre production that might leave fans of this musical wondering if he too got lost in the woods.

INTO THE WOODS tells the story of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and a slew of other famous fairytale characters all bound together by the journey of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). Over the course of three nights,  the couple must locate items needed by the Witch (Meryl Streep) who has placed a curse on their family, which has left them barren.

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The story itself is a little confusing during the first 40 minutes of the movie as we try and attempt to figure out just how exactly all the characters are connected. The roughly 15-minute opening number introduces us to just about ever character in the film, and the stories we are all familiar with (Jack taking his cow to market, Little Red off to grandmothers house, etc.). Eventually, each element fits into place, albeit about half way through the film. Some fans of the musical may find that the omitted material leaves out much of the subtext implied by their original stories (like the sexualization of Little Red by the Wolf, even though Depp’s wolf is perfectly creepy), but again, I must remind you, this is a family friendly version, or as family friendly as this dark piece can get. (For more on the journey from stage to screen, check out our feature, “Deeper Into the Woods” by clicking here.

The songs themselves are enjoyable within context but, and this has always been my issue with INTO THE WOODS, is that it has only one song that stands out among the rest (“Stay With Me”) and doesn’t inspire the desire to sing along after leaving the show. All the songs in INTO THE WOODS are simply variations on the same tune, which makes it feel like we are just hearing the same song over and over again. Sondheim, who is known for bringing us such hits as WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY, focused more on lyrics that were clever and drove the story rather than ones which could be stand alone songs. Much like his other musical SWEENEY TODD, it lacks something that I can’t quite put my finger on. (That said, this is exactly what some people appreciate most about how the show is structured.)

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The performances by the cast are mostly incredible, lead by surprising modern musical It-girl, Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone (who played Gavroche in LES MISERABLES) as Jack, and Blunt, who plays her role with a subdued sense of passion. Streep, the obviously most seasoned performer on the screen is somehow overshadowed by her elaborate and beautiful costumes and set pieces, which is incredibly unfortunate because her performance came across as aloof to me. One of the best scenes, however, is between the surprisingly talented Pine and Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s prince) as they perform “Agony”, an over-the-top display of masculinity and bravado which is both hilarious and charming.

While the set pieces, costumes and many of the performances are incredible, there just seems to be something missing from the story. Perhaps it is the way that INTO THE WOODS forces its audience to focus more on the relationship between the characters and the intertwining of the stories than the music itself, or even its confusing morality tale about the consequences of making wishes. I always found it confusing that the Witch never wanted her daughter to grow up and kept her in captivity, whereas the Baker just wanted to grow up and be a father but was never able to. The conflicting ideas of staying a child forever, and accepting adulthood and responsibility send a mixed message about what exactly the film is about. With so many characters seeking out different goals, the whole story at times, while often fun and even enjoyable, manages to also come across as contrived and muddied. This could be because of the much shorter running time and the omission of certain plot points, or it could just me simply projecting my lack of adoration for this particular musical.

3 sheep

Your turn!

How many sheep would you give Into the Woods?

8 Comments

  1. Critiquing a movie version of a well-known Broadway musical is one of the hardest thing to do (I know this from past experiences), ESPECIALLY if you’re not a fan of the source material. Like you, I also was hugely disappointed with Marshall’s version of NINE (despite nice touches by some the cast) but I admit that the cast albums of this show always left me cold and I had no desire to ever see it on the stage. Whereas I respect this review, there are (in my mind) glaring misrepresentations that should be addressed with a tad more honesty. To accuse the filmmakers of Disney-fying this movie is unfair as Disney was the parent company of Miramax which produced “Chicago” and released it with all its seedy and sexual glory (though I will never forgive Rob Marshall for excising one of my favourite songs, “Class”, from the final cut). I am also confused as to which omitted plot points you are referring to. Are they the ones from the original Broadway version starring Bernadette Peters as the Witch or the revival years later that starred Vanessa Williams as the Witch to which Sondheim himself added the 3 Little Pigs to the show and changed some of the lyrics to some of the songs? You are absolutely correct when you write that one leaves a Sondheim production humming the performances and sets rather than the songs, but it’s been almost a week since I’ve seen this movie and I still cannot get the songs :Children Will Listen” or “No One Is Alone” out of my head. Both these songs have always resonated with me and I thought they were brilliantly interpreted on screen. You must admit, though, that “Agony” is a piece of musical comedy gold, but it’s something no one will ever attempt to sing in a karaoke bar after a couple of martinis! Whereas INTO THE WOODS doesn’t even crack the top 10 of my favourite Broadway musicals, with the exception of Johnny Depp (I’m sooooo tired of his schtick), everyone in this movie version shines brightly and sing it to perfection; there’s not a Russell Crowe as Javert in the bunch. I left the movie the same way the movie ends…”into the woods and out of the woods and happily ever after”!!!

    • I’m so tired of people complaining about Johnny Depp. He gives a perfect performance as The Wolf in the movie and yet you are “sooooo tired of his schtick” ? Please.

    • My in depth analysis of the differences between the show and the film is finally up! While I think Nick’s dislike for the source material certainly made it difficult for him to like the film, I do think he’s right about the supposed Disney-fication. Miramax back in the day did their own thing, just like Pixar and Marvel do now. I’m sure the Weinstein’s didn’t have to answer to Disney about Chicago or anything else they were doing. That said, I do not agree that the songs aren’t catchy. Into the Woods is incredibly catchy; the only show stoppers might belong to the Witch but this musical resonates with me deeply and I can listen to these songs over and over again. I can’t be the only one.

      Anyway, I too am not in love with Depp as of late but I don’t think his “schtick” was so bad here. 🙂

      Here’s my piece if you want to go deeper …
      http://blacksheepreviews.com/deeper-woods-feature/

  2. The opinion of someone who haven’t saw the Broadway production: it’s pretty damn good!

    Hey, if you wanna see a musical this holiday season, this is definitely a way better option than, say, “Annie”…

  3. This movie should come with a warning and Hollywood should be forced to show its a bad musical in the trailers. The cast is outstanding but such a very very bad musical. Kinda like chewing tinfoil for 2 hours.

  4. I absolutely hated everything about this film. The contrived story line. The non professional singing. The set design, the costumes, just awful. Wish I could get my money and two hours of my life back. Please Hollywood, there are so many brilliant, thoughtful films that barely see the light of day and too many pieces of crap like this one that get huge releases. Give the audience some credit for intelligence and taste and stop feeding us this slop on a platter.

  5. Thanks for all the comments, you guys!

    I think Into the Woods is a very particular musical and there was a lot of concern as to how it would turn out in the musical community. I know that my first screening of it, all I could muster was relief that it didn’t suck. It was only upon second viewing that I ended up enjoying it.

    Mightmad, I haven’t seen Annie but then again, I really don’t want to. 🙂

    Matt, Our writer does not like this musical in its original form at all. He and I differ on that greatly. It does not shock me that some of you really didn’t like the film. I personally think the source material is genius, both musically and lyrically, but it is a particular kind of musical and it is not for everyone.

    That said, Cynthia, to not like the show is one thing, to say the set and costumes sucked is a bit much. Also, I’m not sure how writing about fairy tales can be anything other than contrived. It is a shame that you weren’t able to connect with the insight that is inherent in the brilliantly written score.

    Hollywood puts out far worse crap than this. I would save your anger for some of the obvious crap out there. It would be easier to take your opinion seriously.

    Again, for a more in depth analysis of the stage to screen differences, you can read my piece here. http://blacksheepreviews.com/deeper-woods-feature/

  6. This is a nicely even-handed review, which is refreshing! Most reviews I’ve seen thus far for this show seem to come from either super-Sondheim fans or those who apparently hate his type of story-telling. You’ve got a couple credits wrong here, though – Sondheim didn’t write West Side Story (that was Leonard Bernstein), and he provided only the lyrics for Gypsy (music by Julie Styne). Sweeney Todd was his, which explains why you found the styles similar. He prefers a motivic method of composition, reusing little snippets of tunes rather than a Richard Rodgers type melody. It doesn’t always work. 😉

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