Movie a Day Blog believes that it is increasingly difficult to come up with a film musical that clicks with contemporary audiences the way the classic Hollywood musicals did with their fans in the 1940s and 50s.
Rob Marshall overcame that hurdle with his film adaptation of CHICAGO (2002), which won six Oscars, including one for him as Best Director, and was a global boxoffice hit. I didn’t care for it, however; I found its chopped up style to be a sop for MTV-nurtured viewers, all body parts and rarely a dance seen in a long shot.
Still, I was excited about the prospect of a big-screen INTO THE WOODS (2014, Theatrical), Marshall’s new attempt to modernize the musical, this time using the magical music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, who is in turn re-imagining the Brothers Grimm and their key fairy tales.
Alas, INTO THE WOODS has great style, wonderful singing, and marvelous performances, but still fails to cohere into the satisfying experience that the stage version provides. When the UNCSA Drama School staged its production a couple of seasons ago, I was totally charmed and swept away by the inventiveness of Sondheim at every turn, musically and lyrically. I believe he is the preeminent Broadway composer of the post-1960 era, beginning with WEST SIDE STORY (1961).
The story and lyrics in INTO THE WOODS are as near perfect as the art form can get. Weaving his sinuous tale around Cinderella (Ana Kendrick), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the Baker (James Corden), his once-barren Wife (EmilyBlunt), and the Witch (Meryl Streep), Sondheim takes us on a fairy-tale journey that turns ever darker and more perverse. Simultaneously, its pull on us, our dreams and nightmares, becomes ever stronger, and we willingly accompany these character searching for comfort, safety and above all, their identity.
Marshall is not so addicted to the close-up this time, but INTO THE WOODS is still more effects-driven than necessary. This is especially true of Streep’s Witch: she’s so special-effectsy she could be Spiderman’s long lost aunt. Every entrance and exit is a flurry of visual effects; the motion capture people must have kept really busy.
Streep is never reserved in a role at this point in her career, but big screen musicals tend to elicit big screen performances, and Streep is more than adequately matched by the great singing and acting skills of Kendrick, Blunt and especially Corden. As the Baker he keeps the plot going and he is a master of physical comedy, as evidenced by his Tony award for “One Man, Two Guvnors,” which I saw and loved.
Blunt acquits herself quite well as a chanteuse, and Kendrick is probably the most talented singer-actress working, eclipsing Anne Hathaway in my estimation. The supporting cast is largely delightful, particularly Johnny Depp in a bizarre turn as a very carnivorous Wolf, and Tracy Ullmann as the nagging mother of Jack, whose discarded magic beans start and end the narrative.
Chris Pine and several of the non-singing cast lack individuality in their characterizations, which fall into the leaden stock roles Sondheim is actually spoofing. After awhile, this INTO THE WOODS seemed less considered with the magic of fairy tales, and more with their most literal realization possible using computer-generated effects. Even the beanstalk doesn’t seem three-dimensional as much as CGI-tensile, able to move more because of a keyboard than due to magic.
The music carries us along and the sharp performances and vocalizations keep them imprinted in our memory; I’ve been humming “Into the Woods” all week long, and now I want to buy the soundtrack. I will admit that I did not see INTO THE WOODS on the big screen, and that may be the explanation for why I found it a less than captivating cinematic experience.
I plan to go on Christmas Day, partly to exult in the Sondheim lyrics one more time, but more to see if the spectacle of INTO THE WOODS overwhelms the story, as I felt it did, or enhances it. I’m actually hoping I’ll be proven wrong.