Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods (2014)

IMDb plot summary: A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.
Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick.

(Some spoilers ahead, though I try to keep a lot of it vague.)

I've been both extremely excited and extremely nervous for this movie. Excited because it's a show I love a lot. Nervous because I wasn't convinced of some of the casting and I had heard rumors of a lot of... Disneyfication, making the story less dark and creepy, which is kind of the point of the entire second act.

Fortunately, I had very little to worry about. While it's not perfect, it's a very good adaptation, and when it differs from the show it nearly always makes sense. I only have a few nitpicks, and they're relatively minor, so let's start with those. Let me just tell you right now, this may be the longest review in the world.

Typically in the show, Little Red and Jack are played by adult actors, though they still play children. I'm still not convinced that they made it work casting an actual child as Little Red. Jack's story worked all right, and I found that I really liked having children in the story at the end, where vulnerability, growing up, and loss of innocence are all huge themes. These themes worked much better when I didn't have to suspend disbelief further to imagine that this mid-20s actor was a 12-year-old. However, Little Red's early story is extremely disturbing. "Hello Little Girl," the song where the wolf distracts her in the woods, has always had sexual predator undertones, and Little Red's later song "I Know Things Now" doubles as a coming-of-age song about sexual discovery. With a 22-year-old woman is singing these songs, even dressed as a child, they're thought-provoking and interesting. When a child who looks about 13 is singing them, it gets very icky very fast. They tried to give "Hello Little Girl" a lighter tone and use visual clues to make "I Know Things Now" as literal as possible, but it just isn't enough. Fans of the original show no doubt are yelling, "Then just cast an adult!" and I would have said that as well before seeing this, but I'm not sure you could find anyone who looks old enough that this wouldn't be disconcerting *and* young enough that it could still be at least mildly convincing as a child. The theater makes it easier to do that -- you're not sitting mere inches from the actors' faces as you are with a movie. I feel this was probably a necessary change, but it carried unpleasant consequences, and as much as I love "Hello Little Girl," I would have been much more comfortable if that song had been cut altogether.

Secondly, there's an important theme that gets lost here because of crushing time plots together. Cinderella's Prince reiterates it in the movie: "I thought if I had you, I would never wish for anything more." In the show, there's several months, perhaps even a year, between the happy ending finale and the appearance of the Giantess. In the movie, everything starts going wrong perhaps even at the Princes' weddings (it doesn't really look like a wedding, but everyone in the kingdom seems to be gathered at the castle and cheering for the Princes). This makes it seem almost like "happily ever after" didn't work not because it's a fundamentally flawed idea, but because *it got interrupted*. At the beginning of act 2 in the show, you see the characters have all gotten their wishes, and they still have things to complain about. It's a vital theme that happily ever after will eventually fade and change to something different, and that's not quite as strong a theme in the movie. Dividing the two halves for me *is* important, because it shows you what, well, what Disney thinks of as a happy ending and how it goes when that happiness doesn't last eternally.

Those were my main two nitpicks, and while they didn't ruin the movie, they were changes I didn't think worked. But let's talk about the good things, and there are many.

One of my favorite things about theater is that every production you see can shine a light onto a different character and a different theme. This is especially true with musicals like Into the Woods which have OH MY GOSH SO MANY LAYERS. This time around, the shining star is James Corden as the Baker. Bringing to life a character I never liked much, Corden is perhaps the heart of this entire production, a regular guy who loves his wife but worries that he's just not good enough.

Chris Pine is a surprise delight, especially in "Agony," where and Billy Magnussen try to constantly one-up each other over who has the more tragic love life. He's also excellent in his smaller scenes with the Baker's Wife and Cinderella, but "Agony" is a highlight for him and for the entire show.

Meryl Streep, who was The Worst in Mamma Mia! (along with the rest of the cast), is really great here. The Witch's plotline was altered a little bit, and while it could have potentially dulled her motivation, Streep acts the heck out of it anyway and manages to deliver where a lesser actress would be lost. "Last Midnight" is a much *bigger* production than in the stage show, and it works, building to a huge climactic storm of sound and a literal whirlwind. I really wanted to applaud after that song.

Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt are both quite good in their roles, though they don't steal the show as much as the three previously mentioned. "On the Steps of the Palace" is a beautifully done number, and Kendrick's version is the only one I've heard that I've liked. Kudos to her there.

Overall, it's a really beautiful movie. A couple of missteps, yes, but it's hardly the poorly-cast mess that was Les Miserables. I hope this continues to do well in theaters and pave the way for further musical adaptations.

4 stars.

Flickchart: #288 out of 2287, below Jean de Florette and above Another Woman. That is a little high, but I'm sure it'll adjust itself eventually.

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