Friday, January 16, 2015

Into the Woods

INTO THE WOODS (Rob Marshall, 2014)

Familiar Brothers Grimm characters inhabit a village at the edge of the woods, but rather than proceeding to their usual happily ever afters in the musical INTO THE WOODS, they find their lives disrupted when they get what they want. The Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) set things in motion for a different outcome when they collect four items requested by their neighbor, the Witch (Meryl Streep), in exchange for lifting a curse on their house that has kept them childless.

Meanwhile Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) gets her wish granted to go to the three-night festival, where she catches the eye of the Prince (Chris Pine) while fleeing from him at the end of each evening. The young lad Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) reluctantly sells his beloved white cow for five magic beans. He climbs the massive beanstalk that grows from them and plunder the giants’ land atop it to provide for himself and his impoverished mother (Tracey Ullman). Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and her Granny (Annette Crosbie) get saved from the Wolf (Johnny Depp) because the Baker needs her cape to give to the Witch. Rapunzel (Makenzie Mauzy), who has been hidden in a tower by the Witch, finds the love of her own Prince (Billy Magnussen) that frees her from isolation.

Everyone seems poised for better lives when the Baker and the Baker’s Wife deliver the items to the Witch. She regains her youth and beauty. The Baker’s Wife becomes pregnant. Cinderella and Rapunzel marry their princes. Jack and his mother are wealthy. Little Red Riding Hood and her Granny are safe and sound. There’s a great disturbance in the land, however, when a second beanstalk grows from the sixth magic bean, which Cinderella dropped when the Baker’s Wife tried to give it to her in exchange for her golden slipper. With its arrival the paths in the woods become mixed up and the characters’ storylines get confused. The giant’s wife also demands Jack for the lad having slain her husband.

INTO THE WOODS pushes back against Disneyfied fairy tales, urging caution with the stories and messages therein passed along to children, so there’s some irony in Walt Disney Studios distributing the film. Director Rob Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine, adapting his own book, eventually land on the thematic point regarding what we tell to comfort ourselves, but the matter goes relatively unexamined. Instead the main challenge to to the faith placed in optimistic narratives is served up at the end with a tidy What It All Means explanation that feels disjointed from the action.

INTO THE WOODS is drenched in a hazy blue-gray to signify that fantasy land is never really all sunshine and rainbows, but the ugly visual aesthetic fails to differentiate between its dingy but comparatively brighter first half and the even murkier looking second half. In having the two halves essentially appear the same, it works against the thematic drive. Marshall’s inability to handle the tone also hampers how these literary archetypes are being played with. Amid all the gloom the humor mostly misses the mark. When it does emerge, as in the princes’ duet “Agony”, it seems at odds with the somber spirit that characterizes Marshall’s INTO THE WOODS.

Although INTO THE WOODS scatters its focus, a worthy cast and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics do a lot to keep the film afloat. Blunt provides a realistic sense of emotional turbulence in a storybook universe. Streep plays the Witch as both villain and victim, one whose lack of niceness does not mean she isn’t justified in her actions in some regards. Pine impresses as someone used to being every young woman’s dream, which also makes it easy for him to be a cad. While the actors are up to the task, Marshall’s staging of INTO THE WOODS tends to be uninspired.

Grade: C+

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