Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Into the Woods

Not as Grim (as Grimm Can Be)
The Family That Slaps Together Raps Together

Rob Marshall's output as a director has been problematic. He managed to make a fully fleshed-out version of the stage schematics of Chicago, then followed up his multi-Oscar-winner by making a mess of Memoirs of a Geisha, then only managed to sporadically liven up a film version of Nine (but without evoking any ghosts of Fellini, on whose work the whole thing is based). One looked at the plans set photos for Into the Woods and wondered if Marshall was making it or Tim Burton.

However he got there, it was the right path, because Into the Woods, his adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1987 Grimm fairy tale mash-up may be his best movie ever after. Marshall's directorial touch post-Chicago has been mostly heavy-handed and cheerless, and only occasionally lightening up in musical moments. Here, the film doesn't flag whenever the music stops.
Blunt and Corden practice their baby-holding techniques
The "real world" of Into the Woods is a fairy tale land where anything is the confines of one village. There, various stories from the imaginations of The Brothers Grimm intersect to form one story of wishes coming true and going horribly (horribly) wrong and the resulting consequences. In the village is a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who cannot conceive a child due to the curse of a witch (Meryl Streep) owing to the previous generation's actions. There is also a little girl (Lilla Crawford) in a red cape who is on her way to visit her invalid grandmother, a matriarchal family of women (Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) who regularly abuse the runt of the litter (Anna Kendrick), a rather dull-witted farmer's son (Daniel Huttlestone), tasked by his mother (Tracey Ullman) with selling the family cow, and the sister of the baker (Mackenzie Mauzy) (abducted by that same witch) who is locked away in a tower with nothing to do but let her hair grow.
Lilla Crawford as "Red"
The story's machinations and complications take place in a nearby woods which are lovely, dark and Johnny Depp'd (he plays the Big...well, smallish...Bad Wolf), with a crowded thicket of swamps, quick-sand, dangerous cliffs, ghosts and spirited trees, crowding the path to the castle of the King who has two charming, handsome, and extraordinarily dramatic princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) who must have inherited the trait from their Mother's side.
Anna Kendrick as Cinderella
The music and songs are by Stephen Sondheim (slightly toned down by the Disney studio, which produced) who has a fine time mixing and matching rhyming schemes—but with a difference.  Most movie-goers experiencing musical fare (like...Disney...again) have their "tent-pole" songs (called that because they support the structure of the movie with key-points, like tent-poles, roughly one every 15 minutes) expressing emotions in stasis (or "this is what I'm feeling right now").  
"The woods are lovely, dark and Johnny Depp'd"
Sondheim goes a couple steps better as both song-writer and dramatist—his song's catalogue a character's change of emotion or realization, their thought processes more than their emotions, their motivations, not their feelings. Sondheim's songs travel, propelling the story and characters along, not stopping the show to get a song in, and the lyrics are so dexterous and nimble that, if anything, the pace increases, rather than slows for a musical "time-out."
Mauzy as Rapunzel "lets her hair down"
It is Marshall's best film to date—well cast and performed (everybody can sing...and well), nimbly paced and production-designed somewhere on the border between Burtonville and the Gilliam-verse.  It's fairy-tale land, but things can turn pretty Grimm (despite Disney's efforts to homogenize the material*)—one notices early on that there's a lot of face-slapping going between families. Things do not turn out happily ever after, and the consequences are irrevocable, despite some hocus-pocus, bovine resurrections and after-lives.  But, the through-line is the journey from life to myth, the passing of reality into legend, as it should be. Nothing down-beat about that.
Chris Pine the Prince
Performances are uniformly excellent and done with verve, but standouts are Streep, Blunt, Depp and Pine (the "Agony" duet is a comic highlight), working with good material that is consistently entertaining and deep, adding extra dimension to the so-familiar words on pages, breathing life and giving voice to old chestnuts and bringing them to full bloom.

* For instance: the Wolf's song "Hello, Little Girl" has some of its more wicked aspects stripped from it, the princes' reprise of "Agony" (which makes them even more fickle) has been cut, and the ultimate fate of Rapunzel (who is given short shrift, anyway) is not even mentioned.  Sondheim did approve the changes (as he did with Burton's film of Sweeney Todd)

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