Saturday, December 27, 2014

Film Review: Into the Woods

It's not good. It's not bad. It's just nice. And perhaps that's why the long-awaited film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, which opened Christmas Day, is largely a disappointment. Directed by Rob Marshall, it is slick, stylized, and without much spark, not unlike Marshall's other two high-profile forays into movie musicals, Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009). The sets and costumes are beautiful. The performances are all professional and proficient, some are even great. The pace is spry. Yet the endeavor stops short of being wholly satisfying. It feels strangely empty in a way that even the less-than-perfect stage productions of this musical I've seen over the years never have.

The cuts to the score were nowhere near as large as many feared, which I suppose can be looked on as a net gain. I wasn't expecting to hear Meryl Streep (The Witch) and Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel) sing "Our Little World," which Sondheim wrote for the 1990 London premiere production and kept for the 2002 Broadway revival, and which I seem to be alone in loving. Yet the one major deletion turns out to be, for me at least, a big, problematic one: the character of The Mysterious Man--the Baker's father--is here reduced to a non-singing non-entity, only appearing briefly in two scenes. This, of course, means that the poignant duet "No More," which does so much to justify all of the Baker's actions and emotions throughout the story, is gone, and the Baker's fears that he'll fail as a father himself don't carry the necessary weight that they always seem to in stage musical. And the fact that the Baker's father is played in those short moments by the great British stage actor Simon Russell Beale is just a cruel reminder of what could have been.

Though no performance is particularly bad--not even Johnny Depp's Wolf, which I dreaded going in--some are better than others. Particularly, Emily Blunt is a revelation as The Baker's Wife. In what may be the best performance in a movie musical since John Cameron Mitchell committed his Hedwig to film in 2001, Blunt brings an earthiness and passion to her performance that suits the character perfectly. She also sings beautifully, as does Anna Kendrick, as Cinderella. In supporting roles, Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mother), Christine Baranski (Cinderella's Stepmother), Tammy Blanchard (Florinda), Lucy Punch (Lucinda), and Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel's Prince) all shine.

While Streep and James Corden, as the Baker, both turn in absolutely competent performances, neither struck me as achieving anything particularly special. Lilla Crawford sang Little Red Riding Hood's music beautifully but seemed disconnected from the character. Daniel Huttlestone performed Jack as though his lines were being fed to him in real time, staccato and with little feeling. Chris Pine, as Cinderella's Prince, didn't sing particularly well, but he sure looked the part, and sent most of the auditorium at the performance I attended swooning.

Call me pessimistic, but I rarely find that movie musicals are able to translate the magic they emit on stage to the cinematic medium. Into the Woods is just another case in point.

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