Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Into the Woods

It's turned into musical movie month, hasn't it?  Beware of spoilers!

If Into the Woods isn't the most soul-stirring musical, it is still well made and highly entertaining.  Written by Stephen Sondheim and premiering on Broadway in 1987, it combines several classic fairytales and centers them around a semi-original tale involving a baker and his wife.  The movie version is directed by Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame) and contains a star-studded cast, including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick.

Plot Synopsis

The Baker and his wife live a good life, except that they cannot have children.  One day, they learn from their neighbor, a witch, that their house has been cursed because the Baker's father once stole items from the witch's garden, including magical beans.  In addition to taking the Baker's parents' second-born (a girl), the witch proclaimed that his house would remain barren unless the Baker and his wife were able to locate four magical items: a cape red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a cow as white as milk, and a golden slipper.

This sets the Baker and his wife off on a quest that gets them tangled up in Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.  Madcap adventures ensue, and every character ends up with what they think they want, but may not actually be the case.  And that's only the first hour.

A Note on Sondheim

Prior to my Sweeney Todd review, I didn't know a great deal about Stephen Sondheim, other than that he was the lyricist for West Side Story.  Since then, I will confess that I am still very ignorant of the ways of The Sondheim, but some patterns have emerged.  One, Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist.  That much is clear.  Sondheim loves word games and word patterns.  From him, a conventional rhyme is both surprising and a disappointment.  Two, Sondheim does not let anything get in the way of his lyrics, including the music.  Whether you hum the songs leaving the theatre matters less than whether you heard the ideas expressed.  See, for example, Sweeney Todd's "The Epiphany."  That said, Sondheim can bust out a glorious soaring melody when he really wants to, like "Johanna" or "Being Alive," or a memorable ensemble number like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

Three, Sondheim meditates a lot on what it means to be happy and fulfilled.  Does it involve being in a relationship?  Does it involve getting revenge?  Does it involve being famous for your art?  Into the Woods contains this pondering, specifically: What comes after Happily Ever After?

Four, Sondheim musicals can be... awkward.  Both Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George have two very distinct acts that hold together uneasily.  With the latter, while the first act is a self-contained story about the formation of Georges Seurat's most famous painting, the second involves the struggles of Seurat's (fictional) grandson or great-grandson to make art.  The second act has thought-provoking ideas and "Putting It Together" alone is worth sticking around, but it seems like a clumsy attempt to make it all "mean something" when maybe the first act wasn't enough (or at least long enough).  With Into the Woods, Act One appears to be Happily Ever, while Act Two is After.  That itself would not be so problematic except that the device used to bring things to a head, to me, detracts from the message.  The movie does not do a whole lot to solve this problem and, in fact, might make it worse.

Overall, Sondheim musicals are brilliant and problematic, yet always an irresistible source of movie adaptations since this one.

The Good   

Whimsical Premise.  It is hard not to like any story derived from fairy tales, and on the whole, we are conditioned to see fairy tale entertainment that takes big liberties with the source material (see Frozen versus The Snow Queen).  Into the Woods is no exception, almost seamlessly weaving together four very different fairy tales and focusing them around an original tale.  The movie manages to mine both humor and pathos from this arrangement, the humor coming primarily from mocking characters like the vain handsome princes in Cinderella and Rapunzel.  Meanwhile, Cinderella's tale, the witch's backstory, and the Baker and his wife's situation contribute much of the pathos -- particularly the last example.  The Baker always dreads becoming like his father, whom he regards as a snake who abandoned his family.  It's also nice to see that a Disney-produced Into the Woods doesn't shy away from some of the darker aspects of the source material, such as when Cinderella's step-sisters butcher their feet to fit the gold slipper.  The stories shouldn't work so well together, but somehow they do.  

Strong Performances.  While on the whole, there is no one performance that grabs me and shakes me by the shoulders (as arguably was the case with Anne Hathaway or Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables), they are all pretty solid.  I found Emily Blunt as the Baker's wife to be surprisingly effective in what might have been a largely thankless role.  Meryl Streep is fun and occasionally moving as the witch, and Anna Kendrick brings some sensitivity to the role of Cinderella, the girl who isn't sure Happily Ever After is what she wants.  Everyone raves about Chris Pine as the prince, and I thought he was fun.  Even Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf was okay, even if his was the weakest (and smallest) of the major roles.  Though there were no Anne Hathaways in this cast, there were also no Russell Crowes.         

The Sondheim.  It's Sondheim, so of course the lyrics are intricate, witty, and effective.  See, for example, the "Prologue," with lines like "Into the woods to bring some bread/To Granny who is sick in bed/Never can tell what lies ahead/For all that I know, she's already dead."  The witch's explanation of the curse is especially delightful:

So there's no more fuss
And there's no more scenes
And my garden thrives --
You should see my nectarines!
But I'm telling you the same
I tell kings and queens:
Don't ever never ever
Mess around with my greens!
Especially the beans.

Sondheim even manages to break out a fairly moving tune with "No One Is Alone," which has some typical irony woven in: everyone is alone, so no one is alone.

Themes.  The paper-thin facade of Happily Ever After is poised for tearing apart, and Sondheim does so with aplomb.  Even before everyone gets their "wish," Into the Woods makes it clear that not all wishes are worth granting, particularly where Cinderella's prince is concerned.   

The Bad

Hokey in the Second Act.  I'm aware that there are significant differences between the stage musical and the movie in Act Two, and that the stage musical's version is better regarded.  That said, both versions of Act Two rely upon a plot device to spur the events of the dark second act that, while it makes some sense, is just so... hokey.  Basically in Act One, Jack killed the Giant by cutting down the beanstalk.  In Act Two, the Giant's wife comes down to earth looking for Jack to take revenge, stomping everything in her path and killing several main characters in the process.  I understand the need for action, that there needed to be a reason to bring these disparate characters together again, but... what the hell?  Maybe it's to provide some much-needed levity in what would otherwise be a very serious Act Two, who knows?  Though given that the second hour of Into the Woods looks like it takes place after a forest fire, the direct result of this hokey plot device, I can't say that it worked.

Lacks Heart.  I feel as though I should be so moved by some of these characters' dilemmas, yet they left me empty.  The ones that stick out most are the witch's fear of being left by Rapunzel and the Baker's fear of fatherhood.  Perhaps in the stage musical, the latter (which turns out to be quite significant) is delineated clearly and builds to a moving conclusion, but in the movie, it was mostly backgrounded, so when the Baker met his father's ghost, it left me scratching my head instead of reaching for a tissue.    

Not as Sondheim as Some Sondheim.  Sondheim musicals are convoluted and don't always work, but when they work, they really work.  Sweeney Todd flows well throughout, dispensing dark humor and pathos, floating solos and multi-layered ensemble numbers, and building to an inevitable grim climax.  Yet even more flawed musicals, like Sunday in the Park With George, can have moving themes that get inside you.  Into the Woods, at least in movie form, never challenges me or breaches my emotional barrier, for the reasons noted above.  But maybe even more problematic: the songs just aren't that exciting.  I really like "The Prologue," but it's not exactly a self-contained song you can hum, and nothing afterward rises to that same level.  The music is just... okay.  From Sondheim, I've come to expect better.


Into the Woods is pleasant and entertaining, and is arguably better made than Les Miserables.  That said, it feels like a movie that has polished most of its rough edges, that never takes risks emotionally or musically.  I like the characters, but their dilemmas never get inside me.  That is why I will continue to prefer movies like Les Miserables (even as its flaws grate on me more and more) to Into the Woods.  Yet it is still one of the best offerings of the holiday season, and probably one of the better Sondheim translations to screen, which makes it well worth seeing.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma Mia!Sweeney ToddMoulin RougeThe Sound of MusicPitch PerfectCabaret

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairsprayJersey BoysAnnie (1982), Annie (2014)

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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