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Into the Woods

I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for Broadway musicals brought to the big screen. I loved “Les Miserables,” played “Chicago” in my car for months after I saw the movie, and might even go see this new “Annie,” which I haven’t heard a single good thing about. I’m still waiting for a screen production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I love big songs, big production, big performances. When it comes to big movies, give me a belting diva over a marauding robot or angry dragon any day of the week.

And so I was thrilled to go see Disney’s screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.” I’ve never seen “Into the Woods” on the stage, and, as long as I live in Durango, I probably never will. But I’ve been familiar with the songs for a decade, since I saw the PBS Great Performances version, starring the amazing, inimitable Bernadette Peters. So I went into the theater already humming the songs.

“Into the Woods” is sort of a postmodern mishmash of fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Bean Stalk. Retelling a familiar children’s story from a different angle has become tired and cliched in Hollywood of late, but I suspect the entire trend started with the spectacular success of “Woods” on Broadway back in 1987. And while not all of its elements are exactly fresh almost thirty years later (seriously, why did it take so long?) you can still feel the energy, the excitement, the innovation that infused those first productions.

Meryl Streep plays a witch who isn’t exactly wicked; she’s more… pragmatic (“I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” she sings in the show’s centerpiece), and perhaps overly attached to her rutabagas. Anna Kendrick is a Cinderella who finds herself a bit less than enchanted by Prince Charming, played by Chris Pine, who seems more interested in chasing beautiful princesses than in keeping them once he’s caught them. Emily Blunt and James Corden are an unnamed baker and his wife, childless and willing to do almost anything to break a spell that keeps them that way. The story swirls around them, with lots of moving parts; it’s a miracle all these independent, interconnected sories managed to occupy the same stage, let alone the same screen.

All of them want something just beyond their reach, and “Into the Woods” breaks neatly into two acts. The first is what they are willing to do to get what they want, and the ways they justify their actions to themselves and each other (as the Baker’s wife sings, “Sometimes the end justifies… the beans”) The second act is the fallout of those actions; primarily, what they’re going to do about the marauding, grief-stricken giant who wants revenge for the death of her husband.

So while “Into the Woods” gleefully deconstructs very familiar fairy tales, showing the bias and assumptions underneath them, it also functions successfully as a morality tale of its own, albeit one for a different age. It points out that a character’s identity in a story determines their moral status far more than their actions; Jack is essentially a thief and a murderer, but because he’s a poor boy and not an ugly giant, he’s the hero. Cinderella can deceive and seduce her prince, because, well, because she’s Cinderella. It also calls into question the relentless pursuit of a dream; at times, “Into the Woods” feels very much like a parable for (and from) the naked materialism of the Yuppie decade. The final song beautifully and powerfully lays it all out for us: we all must make our own decisions, we all suffer from each others’ mistakes, but no one is alone.

Unfortunately, but perhaps unavoidably with a prodution this complicated, there are some issues with the direction and production.Some changes have been made to make the film more family-friendly than the stage production; to my mind, almost all of these were welcome, but none as welcome as the clothes on the Wolf. A few songs have been cut to get the running time under three hours; this is understandable, too.  Rapunzel suffers the most; a key scene is cut from the secon act, and it has the effect — along with the underwhelming performance by Mackenzie Mauzie (even her name is hard to remember) of making that whole storyline feel expendable. But the weirdest thing is that director Rob Marshall can’t seem to decide how much homage he wants to pay to the stage production. There are scenes where the special effects are more stylized than realistic, which would be a defensible choice, but then there are scenes where CGI is clearly being used, disrupting the visual texture of the film. In the stage production, you hear but never see the giant; in the movie, you see the giant, but never very well or very clearly. It feels like an odd halfway choice.

But the music is just plain fantastic, and the performances are great, too. The women shine especially. I loved Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the Witch; she may not be Bernadette Peters, but she’s a close second. Anna Kendrick is the perfect actress for Cinderella; she has the beauty to land herself on the arm of a prince, but also the intelligence and restless curiosity to never really be happy there. Emily Blunt sells the late-action trysy with the Prince in a way I always felt Joanna Gleason, in spite of her Tonys, never did.

Anyone who has seen a big city production of “Into the Woods” is probably going to turn their nose up at the screen adaption, as quite a few critics have done. And there are good reasons for that. But for those of you who, like me, love Broadway but live a thousand miles from it, I’d recommend getting yourself to the movie theater to see “Into the Woods.” It was a treat for me, and I’m still singing the songs in the shower.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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  1. Chuyen cung cap tip bong da tot nhat

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