INTO THE WOODS

Film Review: INTO THE WOODS

Published On December 24, 2014 | By John Hanshaw | FILM REVIEWS

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INTO THE WOODS

Starring James Corden, Emily Blunt, Daniel Huttlestone, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Lilla Crawford, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski

Directed by Rob Marshall

Produced by John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt and Callum McDougall

Screenplay by James Lapine

Adapted from the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

Director of photography, Dion Beebe

Visual effects supervisor, Matt Johnson

 

Careful the things you say, Children will listen.

Careful the things you do, Children will see. And learn.

Careful the wish you make, Wishes are children.

Careful the path they take – Wishes come true, Not free…

“Finale/Children Will Listen”

Pity the poor Hollywood movie musical, long a victim to changing tastes and perceptions, cultural shifts and a diminished pool of available quality product.  A genre of film that, once, dominated studio’s production schedules and filled movie theaters nationwide on a consistent basis—and the quality sometimes didn’t match the quantity, even during the genre’s heyday, but that’s really true for any genre throughout the history of film.  It’s also a genre that, alas, gradually, slowly started to disappear from the screen, in terms of that same level of consistency and production, toward the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s.  By the 1980s, the standard, classic version of the Hollywood musical had devolved into infrequent, occasional releases, and quite infrequent releases of true, classic quality.

Thus, during the ensuing decades, the presence of a true, classic Hollywood film musical that achieves a level of greatness is really something that is few and far between, and the release of a quality, classic Hollywood film musical is regarded as a rare event, a special treat, a cause for temporary, fleeting celebration.  In recent years, there has been the instant-classic and well-received “Chicago,” released in 2002 and directed by Rob Marshall; 2007’s surprisingly stunning “Across the Universe,” directed by Julie Taymor; and 2012’s instant-classic “Les Miserable,” directed by Tom Hooper.  There have been some others, but, alas, there’s generally been little else released at the same high level of quality, inspiration and brilliance.

So thank goodness for this year’s wonderfully entertaining, enjoyable, inspiring and fantastical—and generally adult, mature, smart and unconventional in a good way—“Into the Woods,” a sly, engaging and smart adaption of the original stage musical first produced on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre in 1987, and written and scored by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.   The film version of “Woods,” despite being slightly Disney-fied by Disney—like robots, cyborgs, Borgs or clones, Disney executives seem to insist on Disney-fying everything, it seems—still retains that off-kilter, cynical, sarcastic and alternative-leaning brand of modern-day writing and scoring that is typical of Sondheim and Lapine.  That retention of those qualities that essentially make a Sondheim musical original is what saves “Woods,” and keeping that core Sondheim cynicism is what keeps “Woods” delightfully original and unique, no matter how hard the Disney cyborgs try to assimilate the masses into their own alternative universe.

So “Woods,” first of all, despite its ads and despite the Disney overseers, is, like “Chicago” and “Cabaret” and “All That Jazz,” basically an adult musical, on stage and in film, and not really for the little ones.  There is no overt violence, blood, gore, swearing or explicit sex, but the themes, the substance, that Sondheim cynicism and sarcasm and alternative approach, and the overall somewhat-dark and foreboding mood and atmosphere of the story and film are really for mature teens and older.  And that is not a hindrance or a criticism, but it’s worth noting for parents who might be drawn to take the little kids to the film because of the appearance of witches, fairy tale characters, princes and princesses, and other characters generally familiar to classic children’s tales.

“Into the Woods” is a quality adult, mature film musical—and that is precisely what makes the film above-average, unique and worth seeing.

Sondheim and Lapine, years ago, started off with, like any great project, a great idea:   What if we took several classic fairy tale characters, wove them all together into one story, included classic aspects of fantasy and fairy tales—witches, spells, fantastical creatures and beings, out-of-this-world, imagination-stretching stories, magic, other supernatural forces, morals and lessons—and then, of course, added some great, funny, dark, cynical, sarcastic and, yes, melodic, songs and created something that could appeal to several demographic audiences of the theater (and, now, film, too)?   Then these brilliant writers and composers did just that, creating a musical that has appealed to audiences and stayed in the theaters, from high schools to community theater to summer stock to national tours to local theaters to Broadway, consistently, for 27 years.   Despite its inherent darkness and alternative leanings and mature themes, “Into the Woods” is also bolstered by imaginative and inventive storytelling, likeable characters and a bevy of hummable, memorable and, as mentioned, melodic songs, including “Children Will Listen,” “No One is Alone,” “Any Moment,” “On the Steps of the Palace,” “Stay With Me,” and “Agony,” all beautifully staged and performed in the film.

“Into the Woods” has an inventive story, and, like any good story, revealing too many details of the intricate plot would spoil the surprise for those who have not yet seen the musical.  Briefly, “Woods” tells the story of a humble Baker–wonderfully, humbly and understatedly, as required, played by the talented James Corden, who ably anchors the film–and his beautiful Wife–strongly and intricately portrayed by Emily Blunt in a layered, complex performance—who are cursed by the evil and deceitful Witch (a lively, enjoyable Meryl Streep, having great fun here) for reasons explained in the story.  The Baker and the Wife make a deal with the Witch to break the curse, and the deal requires the couple to enter the dark, foreboding woods to retrieve and bring back certain items that the Witch requires to break the curse on the humble couple.  The couple enter the woods and, essentially, all hell breaks loose.

For reasons that somehow make sense on a fantasy and musical level—it’s fantasy, so picking apart the fantasy story in the context of a fantasy musical does not apply here, and the story works, so that helps, too—the Baker and the Wife subsequently encounter an all-star cast of fairy tale characters in the woods.  There’s Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, looking beautiful and acting well); Cinderella’s requisitely evil stepmother (the always-welcome musical veteran Christine Baranski—hey, it’s a movie musical, we have to have Christine Baranski!); Cinderella’s equally awful step-sisters; Jack, of Jack and the Beanstalk fame (the brilliant, real star of the film, prodigy musical acting talent and child star Daniel Huttlestone, who steals the film from everyone); Rapunzel, with the requisite, beautifully-rendered flowing locks of blonde hair (MacKenzie Mauzy); Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, a wonderfully talented child actor); the Evil Wolf (Johnny Depp, in a very brief role that serves more as a cameo than anything else); a dashing, charming, handsome prince (Chris Pine, funny and charming); and even Jack’s Mother, strongly and confidently played by a decidedly non-broadly-playing Tracey Ullman.

It’s not a stretch to say that everyone delivers strongly—this is a talented cast, after all.  But some observers may look closely and say that, beyond Baranski, Crawford, Corden and Huttlestone, this appears to be a cast of, well, actors not usually associated with musicals, musical theater, the stage in general or film musicals.  That would be correct.   Corden, Baranski, Crawford and Huttlestone—despite the latter two actors’ young ages—are indeed vets of musical theater, singing, and the stage.  But—Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine (most closely associated with his portrayal of the thankfully non-singing younger version of Capt. James T. Kirk in the recent “Star Trek” films), Tracey Ullman, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick?!!  The same question that arises with many movie musicals deserves to be asked yet again, at first glance and on first inspection:  Why were these people cast?  Why not, say, Bernadette Peters as the Witch, as Peters is one of the actresses most closely-associated with the role. Why not other musical theater vets for the other roles—say, actual, entrenched musical singers and actors (dancing is not a big requirement here)? Why not?  Well, the surface answer in regards to film is that studio clones generally go for big, marquee movie names to draw in crowds so the studios don’t lose their tens of millions of dollars that they sunk into the film’s massive, sometimes over-sized budgets.

An argument is always made that, well, if you cast veteran musical performers, the films could be better, the word will get out that these are quality musicals, and you may just get those crowds into the movie theater seats.  It’s an age-old conundrum that has troubled movie musicals since the invention of movie musicals, and throughout the genre’s history.  Note the famous dubbing of movie actors and actresses in numerous film musicals through the decades—some movie sleight-of-hand that, in some cases, was not revealed to the public until years later, mostly not by the studio cyborgs’ choice.

Alas, “Woods” maintains its high level of quality from start to finish, is thoroughly entertaining, is strongly, briskly and assuredly directed by Rob Marshall, who re-captures the movie musical magic that he so successfully obtained with his film version of “Chicago,” and the production values are exceedingly strong, including the dazzling, sparkling production design, elaborate sets that include actual old forests and castles in the English countryside, fantasy-appropriate costumes, modern-day visual and special effects and make-up, and a generally entertaining, overall fun and entertaining ride through otherworldly worlds.

Ah, you avoid the question about the singing, the sly observer asks, noting that the previous observations obviously skipped over that nagging question of, well, the singing.  Yes, okay, about that singing:  The film’s producers promise in the film’s studio production notes that all of the actors—Streep, Blunt, Kendrick, Depp, Ullman—actually performed their own singing for the film version of “Into the Woods.”  Not live on the set as the cameras rolled, as the actors actually did for the great “Les Miserables,” but they indeed still sang the songs in a studio with orchestral accompaniment—according to the studio production notes.

Whether that is true or not, only studio production notes, the actors, time and possible leaks down the line about possible deception can tell.  However, whomever did the singing for the film—it sounds great, the voices are in fine form, the inflection and delivery and filmic singing, body movement, presence and acting chops are all there, and the film does not give the impression of deception and trickery.  The performers are all succeeding up on the screen, and for an elaborate, intricate, multi-layered film musical of this nature, complete with all of the big-budget production values required to transfer this tale successfully to the screen, that is all that can be asked—that everyone is believable, and successful, in this fantastical context.

Despite all of the big-name, glittery, movieland star power filling up this film, it’s worth noting that one performer smoothly, professionally, ably steals the entire film out from everyone else, and that is little Daniel Huttlestone, who plays Jack.  Daniel is that rare, true, pure, specially-gifted triple-threat entirely-natural and down-to-earth gifted performer who can sing, act, dance, move and generally perform and entertain at an above-average level that thoroughly defies his young age.  Huttlestone, without any forced effort, without any schmaltzy reliance only on cuteness (which he also has in droves, on top of the natural talent), and without any mugging, broadness or false emotions, which can hamper even the best of child performers—only because, well, they are children!—simply shows up and performs his heart out—at a consistently exceptional level.  He is that rare natural talent, and it shows—he sings, acts and moves across the screen effortlessly, letting his natural charm, style and presence fill up the screen.  This is not an over-reaction, as finding child actors who are this talented on screen can be rare.

If Daniel Huttlestone, who is now 15, seems familiar, that’s because he equally charmed filmgoers the world over just two years ago, similarly ably portraying the fetching, appealing, and cute, Gavroche in the 2012 film version of “Les Miserable.”  And, starting at the age of 9, Huttlestone played Nipper on stage in “Oliver!” in his native England.  Here, right here, in recent years, the stage and film world has a genuine young rising star, bringing to mind the equally successful early years of Jack Wild, who also rose to fame in a production of “Oliver!,” the 1968 film version of the musical, which was directed by Carol Reed.

Filmgoers can only hope that Hollywood and the musical theater continue to find great roles for this great young performer.  Again, as Jack, who plays a pivotal role in “Into the Woods,” Huttlestone just slyly steals the film from everyone, including Streep, Corden, Blunt, Kendrick, Depp, Crawford, Pine and Ullman.

“Into the Woods” is an intelligent moral fable, also, providing layers of lessons about the consequences of the actions that people take, about good and evil, about the dangers of yearning and misplaced trust and deception, about the horrors of mistreating people, about love and faithfulness, and about being careful about how you live your life in all areas at all levels, at all times.

“The story seamlessly intertwines Sondheim’s emotional, funny and brilliant score with Lapine’s intricate and masterful book, which is a modern twist on several beloved fairy tales,” Marshall said in a studio interview, “and is entertaining, while examining complex themes like the consequences of wishes, the parent/child relationship, greed, ambition, loss, and, perhaps most importantly, unconditional love and the power of the human spirit.”  That’s a good summarization of some of the story’s messages.

Marshall sees a modern-day connection with the film, which is based on a 1987 stage musical.  “In many ways, I think ‘Into the Woods’ is a fairy tale for the 21st century post 9/11 generation,” Marshall says. “Sondheim and Lapine were way ahead of their time when they wrote it.  The comforting knowledge that we are not alone in this unstable world gives us all that glimmer of hope.”

That’s always a nice thought, of course—that we are not alone in an unstable world.  And to be reminded that we are not alone while being entertained with a cast of excellent performers, with a story filled with familiar fantasy characters, with colorful, beautiful visuals and visual effects, and with layers of insightful, smart morals and messages, there is indeed some glimmer of hope when the filmgoer leaves the theater—for the movie musical, for films, and for life in general.

There’s no better Christmas present than “Into the Woods,” an uplifting film package filled with fun, entertainment, life—and hope.

 

 

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