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Into the Woods Movie Review
The long awaited film version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 musical Into the Woods has had a number of false starts, including a scripted version with The Muppets starring Cher as The Witch (if only). Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year, this star-studded adaptation directed by Chicago's Rob Marshall and produced by Walt Disney Studios is the biggest movie musical since 'Les Miserables', and will hopefully pave the way for more to come.
Die hard fans of the show and Sondheim-ites alike have openly expressed concern over various rumours throughout the shooting and editing period regarding potential plot changes claiming the show would be 'Disney-fied' for a more child friendly audience. In general there is little for people to get up in arms over - so much so that my major fear is that the end result will appeal more towards the theatre community rather than the mass market it relies on to prove to be a commercial success.
One of the delights of a movie musical is hearing the score realised by a sizable orchestra, and in this case it never disappoints. Sondheim's lush melodies take on an even more symphonic charm giving a distinct freshness to well chartered territory. Whilst in most cases the score remains extremely faithful to the original, despite some obvious and necessary omissions, there are new moments of brilliance in the music to delight those who know every beat. Changes to the Prologue give a fresh intensity, drawing the various strands together, and larger numbers such as 'Last Midnight' have never sounded so full. Sondheim fans will particularly enjoy the brief reference to A Little Night Music as the Night Waltz plays briefly during Cinderella's festival.
Due to the running time (2 hours), much has been done to tighten the story in order for it to translate to film. In most cases the film feels better for the abridgement - there is less time to sag and a lot of the fat has been trimmed around the edges. At times this comes at the expense of character development - much is lost between The Witch and Rapunzel for example - but for the greater good of the film keeps the plot constantly moving.
The film's biggest strength is its aesthetic. Filmed in the beautiful English countryside this is the first film I've seen in a long time where what you're seeing actually feels tangible. Perhaps a strange statement in a world of giant beanstalks and witches, but the cinematography and lack of CGI is breathtakingly refreshing. There is something distinctly British in the general look and feel of the film, despite the accent blind casting, that makes it easy to connect with and slightly more independent that the Disney-led title would lead you to believe.
The ensemble cast have been edited almost enough so that not one person has overall dominance of the story, and like the stage show everyone is allowed their moment to shine. James Corden is a serviceable Baker but is upstaged by Emily Blunt's Baker's Wife, who in many ways becomes the real drive of the narrative. Meryl Streep's much talked about Witch is a refreshing take on the character, transforming between the two roles perfectly and delivering fine vocal performances on some of the score's harder numbers. Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince shines in the more comedic role and commands most of the laughs, raised to be "Charming, not Sincere", with his infidelity shattering the illusion for many Disney Princess fans.
Whilst we had a near miss with the casting of Little Red (Sophia Grace, Ellen's very own 'Frankenstein's Monster' initially had the role before they realised that rapping Nicki Minaj is a little different to Sondheim), the sarcasm and subtext are completely lost in casting Lilla Crawford. 'I Know Thing's Now', depicting the character's sexual awakening following her encounter with The Wolf (a ridiculously costumed Johnny Depp - because there's no show without Punch...) falls flat, and her lines don't have the comedic punch they do on stage. Daniel Huttlestone 's Jack fairs little better. Whilst he plays dumb almost too well the charm of the role is lost and he becomes little more than an annoyance, and you end up wanting to feed him to Frances de la Tour's Giant yourself.
Lapine's screenplay translates well to screen and captures the humour and wit of the original. Scenes such as the Prologue (14 minutes of bliss) are a gift for film and translate seamlessly into this new form. Some of the self-reverential humour doesn't translate as well, and the moments that are weakest are those that work best within the confines of a proscenium. There is enough acidity throughout to delight adults - you'll find yourself laughing at the Stepsister's eyes being pecked out by birds amongst numerous other things - but at times the presence of Disney itself seems to be controlling the fun that Lapine has with the all to familiar characters in order to preserve and uphold their established brands.
Whilst on stage the show is divided neatly into two acts, the divide between 'Happily Ever After' and 'What happens next?' doesn't quite achieve the same impact on screen. An instrumental version of 'Ever After' blends the two sections via a Royal Wedding, but we're not given any time to see the characters consider if their wishes were worth it before the Giant hits and the tone becomes instantly darker. We don't see the characters questioning their choices in the 'happy' world enough so that the real message of the piece can be delivered effectively. The moral becomes reactionary rather than organic, which is a problem the stage musical never has.
Of all the omissions the most missed is 'No More' - the song that connects the Baker with his Father and brings the piece to its conclusion. Whilst it is patched over in some respect the added two minutes of song would have ramped up the emotional conclusion.
Ultimately this is a beautifully produced film that has careful care and attention stamped all over it. As an adaptation it faithfully represents the show and will hopefully export the beautiful score into the wider realm. Whilst I'm not expecting 'On the Steps of the Palace' the be this year's 'Let It Go' (not many 8 year olds can sing in 9/8), the show deserves wider mainstream appeal and hopefully this is the film to do it.
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