Thursday, December 18, 2014

'Into the Woods' review

Movie musicals are few and far between at this point, yet we're still getting two alone this Holiday season. Not many fans are looking forward to Sony's Annie, which has received ghastly reviews so far. But fans of movie musicals are definitely anticipating Disney's Into the Woods, the Oscar contender from Chicago director Rob Marshall. Based on the beloved fairy tale show by Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods is a dark and revisionist take on a group of classic fables. Although it never works as a whole, Into the Woods features many admirable parts including terrific music and lyrics, strong performances and great production design. The second act is a mixed bag and the film is pretty forgettable in the end, but if you're looking for a solid film for kids this Christmas, Into the Woods might be a decent choice.

Into the Woods follows a group of classic fairy tale characters including The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp) and an evil witch (Meryl Streep). All of these characters head into the woods to find certain items and get what they wish for. However, just as it appears that everything is coming to a happy close, the darkness and reality of the world seeps in and happily ever after might not be a possibility.

I'm not a huge fan of movie musicals, but I can very much enjoy a well-made one (I count Singin' in the Rain as one of my all-time favorite films). I was hopeful for Into the Woods because I had heard so many good things about this show over the years and I was intrigued to see what Disney would do with such a risque and interesting property. And yet, even a week after watching this film, I still don't quite know what to think of it. I very much enjoyed the first act and all of its light and enjoyable musical fun. And I liked the idea of the second act, but I thought that the execution was off.

The actors all do a very good job of bringing these characters to life and do a terrific job with the singing as well. Emily Blunt and James Corden anchor the film and give the most nuanced and insightful performances. They're the only characters that we really get to understand in this ensemble cast of actors and I was quite impressed by both of them. Anna Kendrick is also good as Cinderella and she has quite a bit to do in the second act. Johnny Depp really surprised me after his stretch of awful movies that has wrecked his career over the last few years. He's delightfully sick as the slightly pervy wolf and I thought he was great. Chris Pine also is brilliant and his show-stopping musical number makes the film so much more fun.

The two kids in the cast, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, get off to a rocky start with the singing, but they're terrific in the second act. Surprisingly, Meryl Streep is the weak link in the cast. Maybe her character was just terribly underdeveloped, or maybe Streep was just too over-the-top, but I just didn't think she was all that great. She certainly doesn't deserve all the accolades that she has received for her performances.

Into the Woods is also a beautiful-looking film, with great costumes and stunning sets. The production design by Dennis Gassner is dark and interesting, and it does some fun stuff with what could have ended up being just another stuffy period piece. He could definitely get an Oscar for his work here. I had heard rumors that Colleen Atwood's costume designs were brilliant going in and I was definitely impressed by her work. The costumes are an intriguing mix of classic period garb and more modern clothes.

It's not honestly surprising that this is a well-written musical as well, considering that it was written by James Lapine, with music by Sondheim (both of whom created the Broadway production). Not only did I enjoy the big show-stopping numbers, I was also amazed by Sondheim's rhythmic flow in the dialogue, which adds quite a bit to the movie, especially in the mostly music-free second act. With those two principle players on board as well, I wasn't shocked that this also truly felt like a musical. This is a real musical, with dialogue that is mostly expressed through singing. I really liked that director Rob Marshall stuck to the musical elements and created this film the way it was originally made on Broadway.

Despite all of those terrific elements, this film just doesn't work as a cohesive whole. There's a lot going on for a 125 minute film and it hurts the film in the character development department. You never truly understand the motives of some characters and it becomes problematic at a point. The second act was also pretty dicey in my opinion. Some interesting things happen, but it's a jarring shift of tone and pace that will likely leave audiences puzzled. The twist that the film takes about half-way is good, but it leads to a second act that feels anti-climatic, bland and not all that satisfying.

Into the Woods mocks the idea of a happy ending with a last-minute twist just when everything seems to be ending well. I liked the idea of that, but I didn't like the direction that the film took after that. It's devoid of all the fun of the first act and the darkness isn't exactly that appealing. Everything happens so suddenly and so quickly that I wasn't even sure what the film was trying to say. I was never bored, but I found the second act to be troubling and I thought that the film's climax was completely unsatisfying. However, I did think that the ending of the film was strong and I enjoyed some of the last-minute choices made by the filmmakers.

Into the Woods is a film that I won't remember for very long, but I did enjoy it quite a bit while I was watching it. The performances are good and the music is unsurprisingly strong, yet the second act stops the film in its tracks. This is not a great film, but it's certainly a good one and I think that movie musical fans and families will probably enjoy it the most. I found quite a bit to enjoy with this one and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.9/10)

Image Credits: Hitfix, Flicks and Bits, NY Daily News, EW, We Are Movie Geeks

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