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Into the Woods – Movie Review

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Into the Woods – Movie Review

Rating: B (Good)

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With Disney’s long history of adapting classic fairy tales, it was probably inevitable that they would produce a movie combining all of those characters. Using Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical as the source, Rob Marshall directs a magical and occasionally funny twist on the genre. Divided among the multiple personalities and using our knowledge of these stories, Into the Woods crafts something that has an old-school theatrical sensibility. However, there is a surprisingly dark subtext worthy of Brothers Grimm surrounding the lighthearted songs. This is definitely a more sophisticated fairy tale that makes one see the storybook figures from a new point-of-view.

When Rob Marshall leaped into directing feature movie musicals, he seemed to make a point of pretending the songs only appeared in the minds of the protagonists. This worked spectacularly in Chicago, but less so in Nine. With Into the Woods, Marshall understands the entire story is a fantasy and gives a very theatrical aesthetic to the production. The visual tone Marshall gives the movie feels so much like watching a play that the only missing element appears to be an intermission (though it’s not hard for even novices to know where the act break is). Dion Beebe’s cinematography includes spotlights shining down between the tree branches of the woods and the makeup doesn’t hide that there are actors underneath. Of the cast, it’s actually the biggest names that end up playing to the balcony and that’s perfectly acceptable with the movie’s tone. Meryl Streep hams it up as she sings about her ravaged garden and provides many a memorable entrance as the Witch. Johnny Depp’s wolf, represented by comical whiskers and oversized furry gloves, enters predator territory in keeping with the original tale and he is clearly having a ball in the role. Chris Pine seems to be morphing into William Shatner with each movie he does and his Prince Charming makes no secret of being a show-off. His duet with Billy Magnussen is the most hilarious example of machismo seen in any musical.

However, the scene stealing belongs to the Baker and his wife, played affectionately by James Corden and Emily Blunt. Their desperation to have a baby is very sweet and it becomes a rooting interest for them to collect the objects required by the Witch. The more humourous aspects of the story are also elevated by Corden and Blunt’s delivery, especially as they interact more and more with the fairy tale characters. The young actors playing Red Riding Hood and Jack (the one with the Beanstalk) stand up well alongside the adult actors, with the right level of spunk. Lilla Crawford gives Red a lot of sass and gets some of the funniest little asides, particularly as her hood becomes a part of the Baker’s goal.

Since 95% of Into the Woods consists of singing, a lot of its success depends on Stephen Sondheim’s songs. The movie is almost operatic as it tells its story through the music, none of which hit a false note. Some of the songs are heavily comical, while others veer into the dramatic and the romantic. The opening fifteen minute prologue does a particularly great job at introducing us to the story and the characters we will follow. Cinderella, as played by Anna Kendrick, gets some of the musical highlights as she ponders about how to continue her story and decide whether to stay with her prince or not. The music also makes the first half of the picture even more fun as each character sets their sights on their specific goal. The second half, which turns into a search for a giant, takes Into the Woods into darker territory and plays a lot with our expectations. The music takes a turn as well, yet the transition feels natural, which is a key to Sondheim’s understanding of story composition through song.

Into the Woods never forgets either its fairy tale origins or its place in Broadway history and that’s part of what makes this a strong musical. One is almost surprised Rob Marshall and Stephen Sondheim never collaborated before, because their taste for the theatrical makes them the right match. It also updates the classic fairy tales, without betraying them and shows how much room there is for reinterpretation. Movie musicals are already a rarity these days and it’s refreshing that with both Into the Woods and Annie, there are two worthwhile ones playing in multiplexes this holiday season. It’s wonderful that this small revival, which began with Moulin Rouge thirteen years ago, is still going strong.

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Review By: Stefan Ellison

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