Review of “Into the Woods”

The fairytale characters of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), her handsome Prince (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), his mother (Tracey Ullman), their cow and a beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Rapunzel (MacKensie Mauzy) and her Prince (Billy Magnussen) are all connected to the childless couple of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) and the witch (Meryl Streep). Each is looking for their “happily ever after” but does that end the story?

Based on the Broadway play of the same name, “Into the Woods” is a star studded film made with the cooperation of writer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His witty use of language is on full display in the songs that fill the movie, informing the audience far better than standard dialog could. While the movie musical is a fairly rare event, “Into the Woods” is a worthy addition to the list.

Meryl Streep is perhaps the main reason to see “Into the Woods” in a theater instead of waiting for it to arrive On Demand. Her performance is big, wild and thoroughly entertaining. The film really comes to life when she pops on the screen. Her wild hair tinged with blue and grey is similar to the whirlwind in which she disappears. While comical, the witch is the heavy of the story, setting it in motion years before when she put a curse on the Baker’s father. Now, she gives the Baker and his wife an opportunity to lift the curse and allow them to become parents by gathering items from each of the fairytale characters mentioned above. Her plan is devious because it will also restore her youthful beauty once the curse is lifted. Her urgency as the time ticks down for the Baker and his wife to find all the items belies this fact. Streep, who showed off her singing ability in “Mamma Mia,” easily handles the big, theatrical musical numbers. Her talents truly seem to know no bounds as she also wrings her part for all the emotional strength it has as she deals with Rapunzel who believes the witch is her mother. If it was up to me, Streep would be nominated for yet another Oscar.

James Corden and Emily Blunt are both terrific as the Baker and his wife. The little spats they have as they run into problems gathering all the items sound almost real as each gets on the other’s nerves. Corden and Blunt have a very comfortable chemistry together, like they’ve been in each other’s lives a long time. They are also able to convey to the audience that these two people really love each other. It’s a sweet relationship that takes a bit of a dark turn late in the film. This change in tone was unexpected (as I was unfamiliar with the source material) and really caused me to sit up and pay attention. I don’t want to give away too much but it sets one of them back on their heels and causes that character to question how they will continue in his/her life. It’s a turn that kept the story interesting for me at a point when it could have started to become dull and predictable.

If the film has any issues it’s with the Rapunzel section of the story. It doesn’t feel fully realized like in adapting the musical for the screen part of the story was left out that would have made it make more sense. According to the movie’s Wiki page, there was a major plot point that was changed because studio executives didn’t think it would go over well with audiences. Perhaps this revision was so vast it lessened the impact and value of her story. I’d have to see the stage version to know for sure but her story feels unfinished.

This is a minor quibble when looking at the film as a whole. All the cast from the primary leads right down to the actress who plays a giant that we barely see is excellent in their roles. Anna Kendrick plays the conflicted Cinderella who isn’t sure a life in the castle with the terminally confident Prince, played by Chris Pine, is what she really wants. While all the characters she encounters question why she doubts her life with the Prince would be amazing, she is steadfast in her reservations. Chris Pine’s performance as the supremely self-assured Prince reminded me at times of a certain actor as he strutted and preened on screen. I couldn’t help but think Pine reminded me of William Shatner, the first actor to play James T. Kirk, captain of the Enterprise on Star Trek. Pine has taken over the role in the rebooted film franchise and the two couldn’t be more different in look and style; however, Pine seems to be mimicking, consciously or subconsciously, the speech patterns and acting style of Shatner. While this took me out of the story for a few seconds, I just accepted it as his interpretation of the Prince. Little Red Riding Hood is a precocious child played by Lilla Crawford who is both confident and inexperienced which puts her in danger when she encounters Johnny Depp’s Wolf. The dynamic between Red and the Wolf strays uncomfortably close to a creepy pedophilia vibe. Again, according to the movie’s Wiki page, that aspect of the characters interaction was actually toned down from the staged version. I can’t imagine it getting much creepier and still being something an audience would accept. Perhaps the distance between the audience watching the stage play and the intimacy of a camera up close to those same characters in a movie lessens how uncomfortable those viewing the scene would feel. While I understood the Wolf was referring to consuming Red and her grandmother, it still made my skin crawl a little. Despite this, Depp is entertaining as the Wolf as he both sweet-talks and threatens Red. Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard all make the most of their limited screen time and make the supporting characters as entertaining as any other.

“Into the Woods” is rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material and fantasy action and peril. The concept of a childless couple, the abandonment of a father, the stealing of a child and the death of parents might confuse or upset the very youngest viewers. The suggestive material is just a couple kissing in the woods. The fantasy action and peril is very mild. Even the deaths of characters are handled off screen.

While many find the movie musical to be somewhat off-putting, “Into the Woods” actually benefits from having the characters burst into song at the drop of a hat. The fantastical setting, characters and situations are best handled and explained in a song. The talented cast and often witty wordplay of the lyrics makes this an experience even anti-musical people should enjoy unless they’ve had a curse placed on their heart by an evil witch.

“Into the Woods” gets five stars.

I also watched the troublemaking satire “The Interview” starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. While I understand the North Koreans are a prickly bunch, I can’t see why they would put up a stink over such a silly film. While Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg have stuffed the movie with a huge number of jokes and humorous situations, the film is eventually overcome by its own lightness. The concept is pretty ridiculous as well with the CIA giving the job of killing Kim Jung-un to a talk show host and his producer. Exhibiting their incompetence from the outset, there’s no way the plan would have continued past the preliminary stages. Of course, one must ignore common sense when dealing with a film like “The Interview.” It doesn’t waste any time or energy on logical thinking in either the story or the acting.

“The Interview” gets two and a half stars out of five.

January usually is a dumping ground for movies the studio has no faith in being either a commercial or critical success. That makes the first month of the year a perfect time to catch up with the movies that are making awards season waves. Several have just opened in Knoxville, TN and I’ll see about reviewing as many as I can before the trophies are handed out.

Big Eyes—

Foxcatcher—

Wild—

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death—

Send questions or comments to stanthemovieman@comcast.net and follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s