INTO THE WOODS
2014, PG, 125 mins.
2014, PG, 125 mins.
Anna Kendrick as Cinderella / James Corden as The Baker / Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince / Johnny Depp as The Wolf / Emily Blunt as The Baker's Wife / Meryl Streep as The Witch / Lucy Punch as Lucinda / Christine Baranski as Cinderella's Stepmother / Tracey Ullman as Jack's Mother / Simon Russell Beale as The Baker's Father
Directed by Rob Marshall / Written by James Lapine
THE WOODS debuted nearly 30 years ago on the Broadway stage and it was a
long standing musical triumph for audiences and critics alike in terms of
how it took inspiration from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales – like Red
Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk –
by honoring their essence while exploring the darker impulses of
their characters and their decisions.
It homogenized all of these fairy tales and then further combined
them with an original story of a baker and wife struggling to have a baby
and a wicked witch that has a dastardly manner of assisting them.
INTO THE WOODS put the grim back into the Brothers Grimm canon,
reminding audiences of how deeply unsettling their themes were.
the larger problem that has befallen the big screen Disney
adaptation of the stage musical is that it's a Disney-fied PG iteration of
it, which has
lamentably neutered most of the stage version’s gutsy nerve.
Director Rob Marshall is certainly no stranger to the musical genre
(he helmed the only musical of the last decade to win an Oscar for Best
Picture in CHICAGO), and he lovingly evokes INTO THE WOODS as a fine piece of filmmaking on a level of technical craft (the film looks
great, despite its surprisingly meager $50 million budget, which is
scandalously $15 million cheaper than the recently released ANNIE).
Still, Marshall can’t seem to fine a consistent sense of pacing
and tone to the piece, not to mention that the overtly macabre sexual and
violent overtones of the original musical are all but AWOL here.
The cast is indeed quite game, assured, and uniformly superb and
their vocal range is superlative, but Marshall's handling of the
underlining material undermines their work.
be fair, INTO THE WOODS captures the narrative of its stage antecedent
quite well and has a rousingly good opening act that – ostensibly
through song – expeditiously introduces us to all of the characters,
their predicaments, and sets up the larger story to come.
Four of the aforementioned Brothers Grimm fairy tales are relayed,
albeit with minor tweaks here and there, and are submerged within the
larger tale of a Baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt) and their
childless woes. The Witch (Meryl
Streep) has placed a nasty curse on their house, but the only manner to
release it is for the husband and wife to retrieve four items: a white (of
the milky variety) cow, a red cape, a yellow strand of hair, and a golden
slipper. Of course, those
items sound familiar, because they belong, in one form or another, to
Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack
from Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie
Mauzy). The couple must, as a
result of their dicey situation, con their way through all of these people
in order to secure the items they so desperately need.
Not everyone, alas, lives happily ever after when the film
concludes. Hell, some don’t end
up living at all.
cast not fully invested in the proceedings would have all but sunk INTO
THE WOODS, but Marshall has assembled some truly fine performers here, all
of which take great relish in their roles, many that are twisted and
turned well beyond our popular understanding of them.
I enjoyed the tandem of Corden and Blunt for their limitless
chemistry and infectiously fantastic on-screen appeal.
Kendrick, who’s already proven herself to be a singer of
remarkable range, manages to marry nimble enthusiasm with a low-key
melancholy that suits her role rather well.
Rather predictably, Streep’s witch character is a deliciously
evil showstopper and the actress shows a fiery commitment and poise in
harnessing the more grandiose elements of her protagonist. The actress, alongside her fine work in MAMMA
MIA!, seems to
be making a solid and effective career segue into movie musicals.
film, alas, has one huge performance standout and one depressing letdown.
Of all of the actors, it’s Chris Pine as the hysterically narcissistic
Prince Charming that kind of quietly steals the movie from the rest of the
cast. Born to be "charming, not sincere” (by his own
admission), the constantly poising and vanity-driven Prince seems
positively baffled that Cinderella hardly pays any attention to him.
Pine has a wickedly droll duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy
Magnussen) as they literally tear open their shirts in frustration as to
their womanizing woes. Pine
deserves serious props for (a) being a shockingly good singer and (b)
self-deprecatingly sending up his own movie star image as a sex symbol.
The actor seems to be deriving the most pure visible
enjoyment out of playing up to – and then gleefully mocking - the
conventions of his character.
performance letdown, alas, is Johnny Depp, not so much because he’s not
a dynamic presence in the film, which he assuredly is.
The actor looks sinfully mischievous as the Big Bad Wolf (the
costume design by Colleen Atwood is stellar) and fully
understands – perhaps more so than the film he’s in – the unsavory
predatory sexual nature of the character he’s playing.
While maliciously stalking his prey in Red Riding Hood, Deep
joyously spews up lyrics like “There’s no way to describe what you
feel when you’re talking to your meal.”
The whole thrust of the relationship between the Wolf and Red
Riding Hood is laced cringe worthy pedophile undertones and Depp plays off
of this, but his Wolf is such a non-entity in the film (he’s more of a
gloried cameo) and Marshall seems too damn inhibited to explore it to its
fullest. Depp is all but dispatched with early on and the film abandons the character
rather hastily. What a letdown.
Granted, and again, that’s the biggest deficiency of INTO THE WOODS; it’s not that the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine numbers aren’t catchy or that the cast is incapable of infusing ample life into them. No, INTO THE WOODS feels too watered down, too timid, and too unsure of how far it should push the material for its own good. Being a product of Disney, I understand the larger financial imperatives of making the musical a family friendly affair, but artistically INTO THE WOODS sort of betrays its own material and the stage musical its cueing from. That, and at 125 minutes, Marshall’s film saunters on for far too long after its fairly decent opening and second act, which has the negative effect of leaving the film as a whole feeling lopsided. As far as Hollywood musicals go, INTO THE WOODS sure looks the part (it’s lavishly staged and produced) and the cast is splendidly dynamic. Yet, as a twisted and subversive wink-wink, nudge-nudge mash up and send-up of the works of Brothers Grimm, the film lacks the teeth and bite of the Big Bad Wolf.
MY CTV REVIEW: