REVIEW: “Into the Woods”

I have loved musicals all my life. My mother got me hooked on them when I was very young by listening to the soundtrack records with me. (Yes, records. Vinyl.) When cable came into our lives, movie musicals were often played. That was Nirvana for me. I would turn down invitations from friends to go out because there was a musical on TV. Even though I can’t sing or dance, I would audition for musicals just to be there. (I did get cast in Grease when I was a Senior in high school…for the non-singing role.) When I was a Senior in college, I needed just 2 classes in my last semester to remain a full-time student and, thus, still be able to live on campus. My advisor said I could take anything…any level. So, I took a Senior level English Literature course to complete a minor…and Movie Musicals. It was a film course, but it was over-run by theatre majors. So I sat in their midst and we all sang along to the songs we already knew.

Needless to say, when I heard that Into the Woods was being made into a movie, I was simply giddy. I’ve been waiting for this movie for 2 years. I’ve not seen it on stage. I’ve only seen the filmed stage production. (I even bought the DVD.) And I listened to the soundtrack over and over and over. It’s my favorite Sondheim musical. I counted down the days to it’s release on December 25, 2014. You can imagine my excitement when I learned that some theatres would be showing it on December 24! I left the family Christmas Eve dinner early so that I could attend the first screening.

Woods

There was a lot of buzz when people heard about this movie. As more news was released – about changes to the script and some songs being cut – the buzz turned to outrage in some cases. Most, however, kept an open mind. For me, I figured I’d put my trust in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. After all, it’s their show. If they want to change it, it’s their prerogative. Well, I have to say, I was actually quite pleased with the screen adaptation. It’s no secret that the role of the narrator was cut from the film. This bothered a lot of people and I was a bit skeptical at first. But, you know what? I didn’t miss that character. The role was absorbed by both the Baker and the Witch. I actually liked this. It was cleaner and more streamlined. The song “No More” remained, but as an instrumental version. I liked that. And, of course, being a Disney film, some of the darkest elements had to be altered a bit. Deaths were taken off screen…and there weren’t as many of them. But, again, I was not bothered by this. Clearly, Sondheim and Lapine took an opportunity to make changes they thought would be beneficial. Overall, I think this was a mighty fine adaptation. The heart of the story was not lost. It’s still wholly recognizable as a film production of Into the Woods rather than a revisionist version.

I thought it was filmed beautifully. I was hard-pressed to tell the difference between “on location” and “sound stage” filming. Special effects and CGI were used sparingly and only when necessary. When they were used, they were fantastic. My favorite came at the end of the movie while the Witch was singing “Last Midnight” – I won’t give anything away, though. You’ll have to see it for yourself. The giants are more fully realized in the film version and I really like this. It adds a certain realism to the fairy tale. (Take that strange statement however you wish.) The film shows the Giant (Frances de la Tour) moving through the woods and leaving a path of destruction behind her. So when Little Red says that she can’t find her grandmother’s house, it’s quite believable and adds a depth to the story that can’t be seen on stage.

The casting for the movie has long been a topic of excited conversation. It is, without a doubt, a star-studded cast full of Tony and Oscar nominees and winners. A few of the casting announcements had me saying, “Well, of course!” Hello, Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick! A few had me saying, “Really?” I mean…Chris Pine? Sure, he’s handsome and all. But in a musical? And I’d not heard of James Corden. Let me just say….wow! This cast really pulled it off.

  • Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch were really quite delightful as the mean step-sisters. Add Christine Baranski to that mix and it was a lovely trio of cackling heartlessness. They were over the top, but not so much that they became silly caricatures.
  • Mackenzie Mauzy’s portrayal of Rapunzel had, I thought, just the right tone and growth. Her voice is simply lovely. I, too, would follow the sound of her singing. And she stood her ground while sparring (verbally) with the Witch. She also had nice chemistry with Billy Magnussen, playing her Prince. Magnussen took advantage of his short time on screen. His comedic timing was spot on – particularly when singing “Agony” along with Chris Pine.
  • Tracy Ullman, as Jack’s Mother, brought an added dimension to her character. She’s described as being “at her wit’s end” and that is played beautifully. She vacillated nicely between being protective of her son and smacking him upside the head.
  • Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone were quite strong in their portrayals of Little Red and Jack. I’m glad they replaced Sophia Grace with Crawford. An older actor with a stronger voice was definitely needed here. While I thought Huttlestone might be too young for the role of Jack, I was pleasantly surprised. Both actors performed their roles with the right mixture of maturity and innocence. Well done.
  • Johnny Depp as the Wolf was the one bit of casting that disappointed me. I expected more. The Wolf doesn’t have a lot of screen time and I feel there needs to be a solid impact. I didn’t get that from Depp. To me, it felt like he was phoning it in. Personally, I would have loved to see Alan Cumming in this role.
  • Chris Pine truly shined as Cinderella’s Prince. He has a surprisingly lovely singing voice. At one point, the Prince says, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Pine played this to the hilt throughout the movie…right up until the moment that the Prince found that bit of sincerity in him. That moment was played earnestly…and perfectly. His duet with Magnussen (“Agony”) was delightful and hilarious.
  • James Corden just put himself on my pop culture map. He really impressed me with both his acting and singing chops. In my mind, his Baker beat out Chip Zien’s performance in the original stage production. Corden played the Baker with an honesty that was refreshing and appropriate. His chemistry with Emily Blunt made “It Takes Two” a truly heartfelt turning-point for his character. As he struggles with his ability and worthiness to be a father, the character truly became multidimensional. (Unlike Zien, who I thought, was playing more for the audience than the character.)
  • Emily Blunt can pretty much do no wrong in my book. But I admit that I was a little nervous about this role. I mean, she had to hold her own singing with people who are trained singers…and she readily professed that she is not. But I really think she nailed this performance. The Baker’s Wife is actually the most deceptive and morally corrupt of all the characters in Into the Woods. Blunt plays this wonderfully. And her singing was quite good! (I thought it was the weakest voice of all the actors, and she was still excellent!)
  • Anna Kendrick was really wonderful as Cinderella. She was…pitch perfect. (See what I did there?) I’ve always sort of seen Cinderella as a bit of a non-thinking girl who just wanted out of her step-mother’s house…but Kendrick’s version gives Cinderella an intellectual depth that I found refreshing. She questions things and situations…and she confronts her prince. Kendrick’s singing was really spectacular. Her previous work has shown us that she could sing, but she really kicked it up a notch here. “On the Steps of the Palace” was richly layered and “Not Alone” (sung with Corden, Crawford, and Huttlestone) was hauntingly beautiful.
  • Meryl Streep spent years rejecting roles as witches…until now. I’m sure glad she saved all of that up for Into the Woods.  Her performance was spot on. I can’t really compare it to Bernadette Peters in the original stage version because this was almost a different version of the Witch. And yet…it was the same version. Besides Cinderella, I saw the Witch as the most likable character in the show. She’s actually the most “above board” character – she doesn’t hide who she is. She doesn’t deny what she wants. She puts it all out there for everyone. She is who she is and there’s no deception about it. The  Witch wants to be a good mother and goes about it the best way she knows how….and she doesn’t apologize for it. Streep’s singing is beyond compare. I found myself rooting for her during “Stay with Me” and “Last Midnight.”  Her line readings, facial expressions, and physical movements are all perfect and perfectly timed.

Into the Woods, overall, was a highly enjoyable movie. Everything clicked. Though I felt Johnny Depp wasn’t quite the actor needed for the Wolf, I still felt that he did a fine job. Which makes this a wonderfully cast show. All had the talent needed to take the story to the next level and really bring out the themes of the show. As much as I’ve always loved “Children Will Listen,” I still thought it was a little preachy the way it was presented in the original stage version. Beautiful song, but sort of “in your face.” Not so here. And it is the first time that “Not Alone” has ever made me tear up. Really, quite wonderful.

So, get thee to your local theatre and take in the sights and sounds of Into the Woods. I’ll be going again.

 

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