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Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Into the Woods (2014)

* *

Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: James Corden, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick

Once upon a time, there was a giant who lived in the sky with his wife, minding their own business, causing no harm to anyone. Then one day a boy climbed up a beanstalk and began regularly committing home invasions and absconding with their belongings. When the giant attempted to take back what belonged to him, he was killed. When his wife attempted get justice for her husband, she was swarmed and beaten, and her killers lived happily ever after on the proceeds of her stolen goods. The end. It's a bad sign when you end a film in sympathy with the characters you're told are the villains and somewhat bored with the ones who are supposed to be the heroes. Yet that's how I felt by the time the final curtain dropped in Into the Woods, a two hour and four minute film that manages to feel about twice as long as it is, and like its story both drags and is too abrupt all at the same time.

Into the Woods begins with several familiar fairy tales coming together. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) sets off into the woods to visit her grandmother, young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is tasked with selling the family cow, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) dreams of attending the ball. Meanwhile, a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child and are informed that they will never have one until the curse placed on their house by their neighboring Witch (Meryl Streep) has been lifted. To lift the curse, the Witch requires that the Baker and his Wife collect four items: a cape as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. To find what they need, the couple goes into the woods where, separately and together, they encounter the characters from whom they will get the items in question. Having found some beans in the pocket of the jacket left behind by the Baker's father, they exchange them with Jack for the cow, and after saving Little Red Riding Hood from the Wolf (Johnny Depp, in a performance pitched at maximum Johnny Depp), the Baker is given the cape as a reward. In her wanderings, the Wife finds the hair as yellow as corn, which comes courtesy of Rapunzel (MacKenzie May), who unbeknownst to her has been raised and locked away by the Witch herself. The slipper proves somewhat more difficult, as the Wife has several encounters with Cinderella as she runs through the woods and away from ball and her Prince (Chris Pine), but eventually she gets that, too.

The Baker and his Wife succeed in lifting the curse, and the other characters achieve happy "endings" as well: the beans are planted and grow into a beanstalk, which Jack climbs to steal the gold of the giants in the sky, thus solving the money problems of him and his mother (Tracy Ullman); after a lot of meeting and being separated by her flights from his castle, the Prince and Cinderella marry, while Rapunzel marries a Prince of her own (Billy Magnussen); and the Witch regains her youthful appearance. All is well, but all is not over. Though Jack cuts the first beanstalk, killing the giant who is climbing down it, a second beanstalk grows from a bean that was not given to Jack and which is tossed haphazardly into the woods. The giant's wife then climbs down, seeking the one who killed her husband, and happily ever after turns into a series of sadder, darker sequels. Cinderella discovers that her Prince is not the man she thought he was, Little Red Riding Hood is left orphaned by the giantess' tramping through the woods and villages around it, Rapunzel rejects the Witch as her mother figure, Jack loses his mother, and the Baker and his Wife end up separated in the woods and find their fates diverging.

Liking Chicago appears to have gone out of style in the last few years (or perhaps it went out of style immediately upon the film winning Best Picture), but I have an enduring affection for the film, so the words "Directed by Rob Marshall" don't immediately give me pause, even though his last stage to screen musical was Nine. I didn't go into it expecting a masterpiece, but I did expect, at the very least, an entertaining trifle, a cinematic palate cleanser between the more "serious" end of the year movies. Into the Woods does have many entertaining parts - Streep delivers a lively and largely fun performance as the Witch, the two Princes share a comically melodramatic song about the women from whom they find themselves separated, and Corden and Blunt deliver performances of effortless charm - but the film itself never fully comes together. I've never seen the stage version of Into the Woods, so some of the issues that I had with it might be the result of the necessity of trimming the piece down to its essentials, but a number of things that happen in the story don't really make a lot of dramatic sense. Why bother making Rapunzel and the Baker twins separated in infancy if neither of them is ever going to learn of their connection to the other? Why include Rapunzel at all if she's just going to disappear from the story at the beginning of the third act? Why spend so much time on getting Cinderella and her Prince together only to split them up pretty much immediately? Into the Woods is so busy introducing characters and making swift tonal changes that it glosses over anything resembling dramatic payoff.

Glossing over things is what Into the Woods increasingly does as the story moves forward. Characters exit abruptly, their part of the story coming to an end so suddenly (and sometimes off screen) that there's no emotional resonance to it - and that's as true of some of the main characters as it is of the supporting ones. Nothing sticks because the film is so concerned about moving on to the next thing that it has no time left over to develop what it already has or bring most of it to satisfying conclusions. While the film looks great - the production design and costumes are top notch in their craftsmanship - it has a hollow center where its emotional core ought to be, and on top of that it has terrible pacing. Generally speaking, musicals function at their best when they are fleet-footed, and Into the Woods tends to trudge heavily from one set piece to another. I didn't hate Into the Woods - as I said it does have good elements - but by the time it finally reached the end, I was definitely beyond the point where I was ready for it to be over.

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