Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Into the Woods

Once the familiar becomes strange, as Michael Sandel has said, things are never quite the same. So it is in Disney's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods." Here, the familiar becomes quite strange. I recall complaining to my theatre professor when my university put on a production of "Into the Woods" my freshman year that I didn't care for the sudden change in mood during the second act of the musical. But he and others convinced me of this necessity; strange is often quite good, and Disney, of all studios, has done a mostly good job of avoiding the "Disneyfication" of these famous stories like it did for practically a century.

"Into the Woods" is a musical featuring a variety of different fairy tales so juxtaposed with each other that one might be advised to take a copious amount of notes. There's the usual suspects: a little hungry girl with a red cape; Cinderella, slaving away at home for her terrible step-family; Jack, unable to help his mother because their cow will not produce any milk. But then there's something about a curse being placed on a house of a baker and his wife, or something like that. The plot is not too interesting. But the couple are forced to collect a series of items for a witch (Meryl Streep), who placed the curse, and so on their journey they come across all these characters.

Many of the musical numbers fall fairly flat in terms of interest, but there is something certainly peculiar about it all. Here, as our characters sing, the woods are just trees, and the trees are just woods; stay on the path, they may try, but something wicked surely will come. Little by little, we see these characters' stories becoming intertwined. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) embarks on her journey into the woods to bring some bread to Granny (who is sick in bed), and, as we all expect, she comes across a hungry wolf (Johnny Depp). Depp appears only in one sequence as the Wolf, ears pointed and tie undone, with long black claws. It's a pretty good scene, and despite the (mostly) unfair wave of recent criticism he has recently received, like when the Washington Post's Stephanie Merry called him a "51-year-old ham," it shows that Depp still has it. Is the sequence disturbing? Yes, but by now everyone knows the dark history of these old fairy tales and their didactic nature -- take a read to find out what really happens to Cinderella's stepsisters in the original Grimm stories.

The other actors are also quite good. I knew Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) could sing, but I had no idea Tracy Ullman (Jack's mother) and James Corden, who plays the baker, could as well. But the one who really is impressive is Captain Kirk himself -- Chris Pine, as Prince Charming, belts out "Agony" with co-star Billy Magnussen in one of the best scenes in the movie. Also giving good performances are Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack (of the "Beanstalk" story). (Huttlestone appeared in "Les Miserables" two years ago and Crawford makes her film debut here; she also played the title character in "Annie" in the Broadway revival.)

Job certainly well done to director Rob Marshall. We all knew he could get great singing from his actors from his previous movies, but beyond that he deserves credit for this incredible production design, especially its design by Dennis Gassner and Anna Pinnock, and visual effects team lead by Christian Irles, Matt Johnson, and Stefano Pepin. In addition to a nomination for Streep and the production design team, Colleen Atwood is deservedly nominated for her costumer design. This is truly one of the most visually impressive movies of the year, especially the sequences featuring the angry lady-giant, imaginably one of the more difficult moments to visualize. Beyond that, there might be some disappointment. There isn't quite as much thought as I think many people would want, and I don't think there's any way of being able to decipher if this is or isn't a parable about AIDS, as some have theorized the original musical is. Still, compared to many of the disappointing duds of December, "Into the Woods" is quite the treat.


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