Movie Review: Into the Woods (2014)

into-the-woods-emily-blunt-james-corden1-600x400Devout fans of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 original musical Into the Woods know that it isn’t merely a clever revisionist twist on blending some of Grimm’s most notable fairy tales (which it is), but it’s also an ingenious use of setting that transcends physical space into a psychological plain as the darkened woods become an ambiguous world of rediscovery. At the heart of this tale is an existential tribulation where innocence is lost, wisdom is gained, and the dire warning of “be careful what you wish for” is more than just a tagline but an intimate, often times harsh, reality making Into the Woods Sondheim’s most whimsical and humane of his array of brilliant musicals. Any cinematic adaptation of this allegorical fairy tale as life would unsurprisingly be met with either weary contempt, reluctant optimism, or a troubling combination of the two, mostly because this musical’s depth and high potential for error makes it exceedingly difficult to reign in its authenticity. With a combination of Disney’s unsettling history of diminishing challenging concepts for broader appeal and Rob Marshall’s usually misconceived direction at the forefront of the adaptation it’s actually quite surprising how much of Sondheim’s musical is retained in this old-fashioned movie musical that possesses most of the whimsy and rebellious wit of the original production if not the full impact of its humanity. As imperfect as it is in its condensed and lighter toned presentation Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods at least gets the most essential aspect of any Sondheim musical correct, which is the lush orchestration of the music and the intimate nature of its complimentary lyrics. Of course even the music, no matter how exquisite it is, can’t carry this hesitant and restrained version of Into the Woods confidently through to an emotional whole as Marshall’s technically assured yet unimaginative direction makes this profound fable about the trials and tribulations of life into something hollow and inert. Perhaps it’s the film’s excised plot details that diminish some of the dramatic impact, or the almost vignette like feel of the presentation that doesn’t function like a seamless whole, or even the passionless, almost two dimensional direction that makes it seem broad in scope and pandering in intention. Whatever the reason it’s safe to say that while there are moments of entertainment and melodic intrigue to be found in this vaguely loyal yet thoroughly routine adaptation of Into the Woods it certainly doesn’t retain the shows exquisitely profound and utterly humane heart that’s supposed to reside at the story’s center.

The essence of Into the Woods, that is the usage of childish fables derived from the Brothers Grimm, the Charles Perrault, and the innocence slant of Disney and imbuing them with adult themes and anxieties, remains relatively intact here in the script most likely due to original book writer James Lapine adapting the material himself. Staying true to its collision of stories the tale centers around a humble Baker (James Corden) whose house has been cursed in the form of sterile genes by the neighboring witch (Meryl Streep) for the sins of his estranged father having stolen magic beans from her garden many years before. In the hopes of reversing the curse he and his wife (Emily Blunt) must acquire a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold intertwining the tales of Jack and the Bean Stalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella all into one enchanting tale of wishes, regrets, and self-discoveries. Where this adaptation of Into the Woods ventures off its beaten track is where the first half’s comedic, whimsical tone clashes with the restrained and shallowly dark second half where Disney, Marshall, and company couldn’t seem to follow the dark themes all the way through. Important character details from the Baker’s father and the witches’ mother are glossed over, certain character arcs—most notably Rapunzel’s fate—are completely changed diminishing the impact of the witches’ conclusion, and some characters are left out entirely (the Narrator). Basically Lapine’s screen version is Into the Woods light where the risky sense of missing closure is absent from this tidy, generally by-the-book adaptation that borders the precipice of making this musical into something Sondheim never considered it would become: dated. If there’s one piece of evidence that Lapine’s script was interpreted erroneously through Marshall’s proclaimed inspiration of hope and optimism it’s in the positive reinforcement of Cinderella’s last words, “I wish” that’s actually supposed to be a melancholic reflection that life actually never has a “happily ever after” or a Hollywood sense of closure. Unfortunately Into the Woods doesn’t embrace the original production’s darker themes towards how trials of life transform us for better or worse leaving a familiar skeleton of Sondheim and Lapine’s that lacks its potential fullness.

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Sondheim has explained of the woods in his musical as, “the all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed,” and visually it seems Rob Marshall and his production cohorts have succeeded in capturing that ambiguous, haunting place known as the woods. Marshall has the capabilities of being a refined director and it should be noted that he’s one of the only mainstream directors who actually embraces the musical genre’s creative potential as he has demonstrated with his robust and dynamic adaptation of Chicago while also showing us the genre’s weaknesses as he did with his misguided adaptation of Nine. What’s different here for Marshall is an unprecedented sense of control that differs from the frantic editing and swooping style of visual storytelling from his previous musicals as he allows his camera to linger with his characters invoking the intimacy the musical intended. However, such intimacy also translates into directorial reluctance as his unadventurous camerawork, guided by cinematographer Dion Beebe, makes it feel less like an actual film but more of a filmed version of a stage show that worked in a very different way. Some musical numbers, such as Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky,” actually seem to hurt from this still camerawork that clashes with the film’s rushed pacing leaving you a bit exhausted by the beginning of the second half which requires some thoughtful reflection and mental preparation. But still, Marshall’s Into the Woods certainly maintains a sense of visual liveliness that makes Sondheim’s fairy tale land seem palpably real, at least in regards to the detailed mix of medieval and Victorian production design from Dennis Gassner working on location in England and at Shepperton Studios. And for all its flaws there’s something to be said of the lush sounding orchestrations from Jonathan Tunick and the wonderful songs of Sondheim that fill this condensed musical with charming life. Though Marshall’s Into the Woods could have used more of Sondheim’s creative intention—a playful sense of fairy tale strangeness that highlights the ambiguity of surreal worlds that even Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd embraced—a lot of its flaws are made up for in performance that makes quite the difference if done correctly.

Most of Sondheim’s intended themes are experienced directly through the nuances of the performances and the convincing delivery of their vocals even if those adult themes and anxieties are engrained in the storyline itself. In order to feel for these folklore characters of a heightened reality, especially when they are representations of our own murky travels through the woods of life, they must first and foremost be an embodiment of the story’s intended message and have a mixture of strength and delicateness that makes us feel sympathetic to these layered interpretations of fairy tale characters. The most obvious casting choice is of course the daunting, even sometimes distracting, presence of Meryl Streep and it should be stated immediately that she proves her critics wrong from her unfortunate singing experience in Phyllida Lloyd’s Mama Mia as she belts out passionately and coos tenderly in her numbers making the witch an engaging character despite part of her Rapunzel plotline being cutout. But even if Streep is the awards darling for Into the Woods it should be argued that Emily Blunt is getting drastically overlooked as the Baker’s Wife because even if her vocal range leaves us something to be wanted her acting chops make up for it in epic dramatic strides that are tragically convincing. Other notable positives range from the energetic and developing talents of Daniel Huttlestone as the scrappy Jack proving again that his Gavroche from Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables wasn’t just a one off highlight and Anna Kendrick as the surprisingly cast Cinderella who shows a particular strength in understanding Sondheim’s intended lyrical phrasing. And a warning should be given that Chris Pine as Prince Charming and Broadway veteran Ben Magnussen steal the show with their hysterically goofy number “Agony.” However, not every casting decision works, mainly the casting of James Corden as the Baker and seeing how central he is to the events that occur throughout Into the Woods he barely registers in presence, vocal talent, or importance as his storyline is diminished making his significance vanish. Also the gimmicky hiring of Johnny Depp as the lascivious wolf preying on the innocent Red Riding Hood (an appropriate presence even if a little too young) isn’t convincing and comes off muted making it a ploy that doesn’t necessarily work.  And doesn’t necessarily work might be a description for the entire piece of Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods even if there are performances to be admired and songs to be hummed on its exit because in the end it’s the lighter version of the Sondheim musical that should linger with you instead of passively entertain you.

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If there’s anything to positively note about Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Into the Woods it’s that it exists, and its existence might eventually prove a launching pad for children and adults of the like to venture out the actual Sondheim musical. Lapine’s condensed screenplay of his own book has many logistical problems, including a lack of intermission to prepare ourselves for the post-“happily ever after” reality that comes inevitably diluting that complex nature of love and loss, personal responsibility, and what we leave behind for the generations that follow. That darkened sense of consequence, as well as Sondheim and Lapine’s original exploration towards the nature of storytelling, seems to be missing from Rob Marshall’s detailed yet hesitant production as it seems unwilling to become a true Sondheim adaptation and instead becomes a Disney version of its darker original material. This Into the Woods might be Sondheim, and it might even be Sondheim approved, but it’s still missing an essential element of humanity deep in its core leaving behind a mostly whimsical adaptation that doesn’t approach the intended outcome of enchantment. Of course anyone unfamiliar with the original production might be pleasantly surprised by this semi-dark twist on their favorite childhood folklore and perhaps even some dedicated Sondheim fans will be pleased with the powerful orchestrations and convincing delivery of their beloved songs. However, it’s undeniable that this film adaptation is too broad compared to the thoughtful nature of the original show and its unwillingness to go all the way is felt in its hesitant presentation and hollow exploration.

Grade: C+

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