Friday, January 2, 2015

Into the New Year By Way Of "The Woods" (Movie Review!)

I was given a very generous gift on New Year's Day: the chance to see Into The Woods on the big screen, when I thought I'd most certainly have to wait for the home viewing release.

I'll admit, the more promos and trailers I've seen, the more excited I became about the movie, despite my initial reaction to the concept being less-than-positive. (Although, I completely agree that I, too, would jump at the chance of having my work be seen by a much-wider-than-usual audience, even if it mean inevitable compromises.) Take a look at these two featurette-trailers and perhaps you'll see what I mean.
But before I share my two cents on the movie, let me give you a little background, first, so you understand where my review (or should it be reflection?) is coming from. (And I will gif-t you with these lovely, subtle-y alive, character posters as you read.)

New Year's Day I decided it had been far too long since seeing the show (and my last viewing was not of the legendary original Broadway cast either), so I dusted off my DVD and managed to watch the entire play over the course of the day. It was a pretty great way to pass a day.
At this point, you need to know that I'm not a huge fan of fairy tale mash-ups in general and Into the Woods has never been one of those favorite fairy tale things of mine. I don't like characters from one fairy tale running into characters from another. To me it flattens them, makes them caricatures of what is the very spare character outline fairy tales generally use - and need - in order to be effective fairy tales. When you caricature them, however, to me it makes them less relatable and the power of the story drains away. I know this isn't everyone's experience, it's mine, but it has affected my view of Into the Woods over the years. My main problem with the play has always been that the division in ideas between the two acts is so extreme, (almost all light versus almost all dark) and that unless you already had an appreciation of fairy tales and understood much of the subtext, most people I knew who saw it completely missed the point of Act II and just wished it had finished at intermission, missing the entire point of seeing it in the first place.
My eventual thoughts on there being a Disney movie (underline the "Disney" part there) was that these two disparate parts would likely be more interwoven, (especially seeing as the movie making business doesn't tend to give a whole lot of credit to modern audiences to pick up on subtleties). The result would (likely) be that the core idea of the play "be careful what you wish for", which has been the key phrase of the marketing campaign, by the way, would be far more clear, as would the key themes of maturation and cycles. Despite the inevitable Disneyfication of some aspects, if they were doing it with Sondheim and Lapine, surely even a watered-down version would be worth making.

So my DVD viewing, which was a far more enjoyable (and hilarious) experience than I ever remember it being before (apart from seeing it in person, which can't be beat, in my opinion), had me very much looking forward to seeing the movie.

And then I was given the opportunity to do exactly that.

So what did I think?
Is it worth seeing on the big screen? 
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: there are definitely some parts of the movie which make the price of the ticket completely worth it, as they used the *very different* media of film extremely well, rather than having it play second fiddle to an excellent live play experience.

Did I like it overall?
Short answer: yes...?
Long answer: some parts almost glowed, they were so wonderful, while many other parts, including the end, felt disjointed. It should have been more consistently funny but wasn't allowed to carry this through as the primary tone. The times the film shone, was when the storytelling was clear or when the "funny" was given center stage. They should have done this more. A lot more. Overall I was left feeling frustrated and a little let down because it felt so uneven.
Will I get the DVD when it comes out?
Short answer: yes!
Long answer: There's a lot I'd love to see again, things I'd like to revisit and other things I'd like to puzzle out, try to understand why on earth they did it "that way". And anything behind-the-scenes will be gold.
Was it "faithful" to the Tony Award winning play?
Short answer: yes, absolutely.
Long answer: But not in all the ways I think mattered most. (See the above long answer to "did I like it" and, below, the long answers to pretty much every other question!) If I had to choose, it would be the play, hands-down, as the sheer fun of the story and the way it's told make all the difference, but I'm very glad they both exist.

What about the music?
Short answer: Excellent.
Long answer: I'm considering investing in the soundtrack. The orchestration is amazing and the best I've ever heard. The singing from everyone is top notch and then absolutely stellar by some who managed both the technicality and the acting-via-song.
What about the music changes?
Short answer: generally fine.
Long answer: Knowing there would be key differences, I tried very hard to let the movie stand on it's own music and songs, rather than looking for what was added or missing. The songs themselves were OK, though I do think the uneven placement of the numbers, including the way they stopped and started, was a detriment at times (eg the movie opened, and continued, with mostly songs telling the stories, with little dialog, which worked pretty well. When they stopped singing for a while and the orchestra's "stings" weren't accenting the lines, it was as if the focus changed and became a different movie, to the point where someone starting to sing would jolt you a bit.)
Visual style - what did I think?
Short answer: Good, almost great.
Long answer: Colleen Atwood's costume design (and the reasons and research behind each) doesn't disappoint (she even made Johnny Depp's personal preference less obnoxious than it might have been, though clearly she had to defer in that case). The overall visual style was a little uneven - sometimes clearly theatrical, sometimes faux-real. Overall the entire film was very blue, (as in literally had a blue cast over everything) which I think was a poor choice. Although colors popped here and there, the whole atmosphere seemed the same and too stagey for a film, especially with regard to the wood. I think they could have served the story and themes better with a lighter, brighter color palette (and this is from someone who loves blue and moody things by the way!)
What about the Disney-factor?
Short answer: both good and bad.
Long answer: The good was that this anti-ever-after fairy tale made it through the Disney machine, keeping it's main thrust intact without sugar-coating everything - or turning into typical Disney - to be seen by a huge audience. That's almost a form of magic in itself! The big budget was a plus for costume, cinematography and casting too. The bad is that almost all the innuendo and subtext present in the play that makes it SO much fun and so layered simply was not there. At. All. It was actually really bizarre in places that people were saying what they were because, without innuendo, there was no reason for them to be talking about that at all! I think this affected the performances as a result and it definitely affected the reason the story took the path it did (that is, the plot points appeared arbitrary as opposed to cause and effect, part of a cycle, part of a larger set of principles in motion).
So what about the (main) cast?
Short answer: better than expected.
Long answer: Although they were all very good in their parts, some were amazing while others were just "good".
I'll break it down by the mains:
Meryl Streep as the Witch: holy crap she can sing - and act while singing! It's hard to review her performance because she's "always excellent" and she was. I did feel her performance was rather neutered, not being allowed to be at all suggestive, but the mother/daughter push-and-pull within her character was clear and heart wrenching. Unfortunately, despite how good she was, many of her scenes felt uneven. [QUASI-SPOILER: The callback to her own mother at the end, was well done and a good way for her to 'exit'.]
Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife: She was pretty much perfect. Wonderful voice, lovely layered acting, theatrical enough in her portrayal to pay homage to history. Her tone was a perfect match for the best parts of the movie and she was consistent in it throughout. If everyone has been of the same tone, it would have been a far better movie.
James Corden as The Baker: Very good. Honestly, he was mostly flawless but he was put in some odd scenes/staging that detracted. His singing was good, not perfect, but it didn't bother me in any either. In the end, the omission of some key resolution points with regard to fatherhood, left him seemingly lost. I felt sorry for him, because it felt like he wasn't allowed to travel his full arc through the woods.
Anna Kendrick as Cinderella: Very good. Her singing was excellent. I don't think she matched the best tones of the movie though. It's hard to put my finger on why I didn't love her in it, because she was REALLY good, but I think it was a tonal thing.
Johnny Depp as The Wolf: Good, generally. His performance would have been perfect for stage but he didn't match, or play well off Red Riding Hood. Not entirely his fault, I don't think. It's hard to tell. There was a lot of imbalance in his and Red's scenes together. His costume though seemed a little out of place, from a different story (thank goodness it didn't have the traditional "wolf tackle" though!).
Lilla Crawford: Good. Solid performance but too flat, one note and too "American". (Her accent was garish against everyone else's who used a more affected, traditional tale-style of speech and emphasis. She felt modern.) The fact that she really was a young girl (12 years?) and not a woman playing a young girl, just didn't work. I do think this was because of her performance though, (see notes on Jack below) and I'm fairly certain it was directed to be this way - that she was completely unaware of any layering, let alone innuendo (and she never, ever used any). She came across as brusque, flat and fairly unemotional with no sense of maturation happening through the film. Given that Little Red is one of my favorite characters because you can do so very much with her in the play, I was seriously disappointed they didn't capture even a shadow of the traditional Red.
Daniel Huttlestone as Jack: Overall he was fantastic! After the first few scenes he WAS Jack. And he grew up during the film while still managing to remain a child. His tone was perfect.
Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel: Good and better than expected. She was very good opposite Streep in her Mother/Witch role. My one complaint is there was no lightness/crazy to her role at all. She was just serious and if it had been a straight movie this would have been fine, but being *this* musical, she needed to be "more" to meet the required tone.
Chris Pine as The Prince (Cinderella's): Wow. This was the greatest, most wonderful surprise of the entire movie. Where did he come from?! I had zero expectations for him and expected him to be there for eye-candy only (which usually, in my mind, requires suffering through). I barely know who he is. I'd heard ravings about his performance in this and I can tell you they are all true. He is pitch perfect! His tone is perfect for the movie and play and he walks that line of theatrical-realism to a "t". His delivery and timing are hilarious, yet touching and oh boy can he sing (thank goodness). The standout scene of the whole movie is "Agony" with the two princes. And I kept being surprised that every single scene he was in he was spot on - not too dramatic, not too smart or too smarmy, just "charming'. We rarely see Oscar noms for comedy and certainly not for musicals but I would not be surprised if he was on the list - he really is that good. If everyone else had matched his delivery, tone and performance, this movie would have been leagues better (and it's already not bad).
Billy Magnussen as The Other Prince (Rapunzel's): His performance was good. He was definitely a good foil for The Prince and should be given credit for being a key part of the best part of the movie (ie. Agony), but wasn't quite as good with comedy on his own. His scenes with Rapunzel were a bit on the dramatic side but I noticed that was also helped by how they were staged and filmed (a bit soap-like). Unfortunately, since the innuendo and subtext are largely absent, his character doesn't have a whole lot of reason for being there.
Tracey Ullman as Jack's Mother: Excellent. I think she was perfectly cast in this supporting role and hit almost all the right notes. The interaction between her and Jack at the beginning was a little odd at first but it felt directed to be so - a little rushed through.
Christine Baranski as Cinderella's Stepmother: I didn't like this casting at all. The tone was wrong, too hammy and felt cardboard.
Lucy Punch as Lucinda: She matched Baranski's performance but as a result, not the rest of the movie. (Once blinded, though, she was just the right amount of funny.)
Tammy Blanchard as Florinda: She was great. Just the right amount of everything. Her tone worked.
Note: I don't understand what was going on with all three stepmother/sister's wigs/hairstyles though - bizarre stylistic choices stood out in a distracting way in every scene.

Favorite thing/s about the movie?
Short answer: That an a-typical representation of fairy tales is doing REALLY WELL in the mainstream and the wonderful surprise that was Chris Pine.
Long answer: There are lots of little things in addition to the above. Seeing some of the magic be 'real' was fantastic (not all, by the way - some felt like filmic conceit as well). Costume details that illuminated characters (I want Emily Blunt's main 'woods' costume! Kind of Snow White-like, which sort of fit with her character arc), seeing known actors 'perform' and do it well, Milky White (what a lovely cow - I hope she was/is well cared for), the orchestration - wonderfully large and perfect for the film, that they were so faithful in the ways that they were. Extra points for keeping the Grimm's Cinderella aspects intact (mother's grave, the three nights, the pitch on the stairs, blood in the shoe - however ridiculously teeny, the sister's punishment etc)... there are so many good things.
Least favorite things?
Short answer: I think it's mostly been said above.
Long answer: it suffered from lack of innuendo, subtext and was no longer TRULY funny, in the best way that makes you laugh at yourself for doing so many of those same things/mistakes, as those characters. Most of the "magic" was too effect-y, which I expected. The one exception was that  there was NOT a profusion of glitter, for which I am ridiculously grateful (glitter has become a Disney plague!). By the time we made it to the wedding, it suddenly felt like a really long movie and the shift from happily-ever-after to "this isn't quite what I thought it would be like" was almost missing, complete with a timeline that made less and less sense, so it felt like the characters had switched movies all of a sudden. The end was just... uncomfortable, like they couldn't figure out how to resolve it properly. (What the heck happened James Lapine?!) It felt forced and, despite obvious devices inserted to make it more positive, finished on a downer.

Despite all the negative points, it was worth seeing and am glad I saw it on the big screen. I want to see it again and I'm actually looking forward to seeing it again from an enjoyment point of view and not just a pick-it-to-pieces point of view. I would have been exceptionally proud to be on this production if I were in the crew and overall am glad this movie was made.
French poster for Into The Woods
I'm going to notch it up as a good things for fairy tales in general!

Into The Woods Bonus of the Day:
Here's a brand new Into The Woods featurette, just released today (January 2nd), discussing the designing of the Woods, as well as what The Woods mean in fairy tales and to each character. It's a really neat one, worth watching!

Fairy Tale Extra of the Day:
While at the theater I saw TWO very different, fairy tale trailers:
1) Disney's live action Cinderella by Kenneth Branagh and
2) A completely revamped Jupiter Ascending trailer, which is, essentially, a sci-fi retelling of Snow White.

Re Cinderella, I hated it. Yes. That's right. I thought it was awful! Everything except Cate Blanchett, whose stepmother is EVERYTHING you want that stepmother to be. She alone may make it worth seeing. The mice are a (very) distant second pro and Cinderella is my reason NOT to see it. Yes, it's just a trailer, but it's the first time I've seen it in total (and so large). It looks more Disney than the animated movie does! (And I don't mean that in a good way.) I'm hoping this is just the marketing tactic, following the current revived perfect-princess-trend but... My skeptic hat is firmly on my head regarding this remake now (and I had such hopes).

Jupiter Ascending's new marketing approach (and greatly delayed release from July LAST year to the end of February) doesn't show much of the Snow White tale at all. But it looks like a better film than we were originally expecting. The big question is, if it holds as much of Snow White as it used to.
I'll guess we'll find out...


  1. 100% Agree with you about the Cinderella trailer. I think it looks so insufferably boring and almost entirely created as eye candy. I love the animated version, but don't see any point in redoing it live unless it was as a stage show. Branaugh seems to have lost his touch as a director.

    1. I wasn't wowed by the Cinderella trailer either. However, I thought that was because I was never a huge fan of the story of "Cinderella". I did joke to my father as we left that they gave away the whole story in the trailer (it's "Cinderella", who doesn't know the story already?)

  2. 'I don't like characters from one fairy tale running into characters from another'

    I sometimes get this feeling when I see Werewolves being put into film with vampires. They seem like such strong archetypes or symbols that sometime it doesn't work.

    I'm interested in the graphic design they've done for the posters of Into the Woods. I haven't seen the film but it seems like they've tried to make the characters as cut-out as possible in a visual way. It reminds me of computer game content - in a lot of games, when you pick a character to play you are required to pick a very simple archetype - be it witch, knight, shaman, elf or whatever. It seems like they've gone the extra mile in this films and stamped their names in white font on the posters as well. I think this helps their marketing purposes and to sell merchandise - just buy the thing that says 'Cinderella' - no thinking required! Also, from judging the font style they've chosen, I guess they've done it so that viewers expect a more light hearted film.

    Regarding the blue cast over everything - I think this has become quite fashionable but sometimes film makers go over the top with it. I think the reason why they might have done it with this one is to give everything a night-time feel - without it actually being night-time. If it was short in actual twilight or at night in a wood or forest, you wouldn't really be able to to see anything at all due to the canopy of leaves & branches.

  3. What an informative review! You never fail to mention every aspect of the movie, even the least important parts of it. You even criticized the cast’s vocal qualities! Thank you for sharing that. I’m looking forward to reading more of your interesting reviews in your future posts. Take care!

    Simon Walker @ The Viewlorium