Thursday, December 25, 2014

Movie Review: "Into the Woods"

While this may lead me to having my gay cred get knocked down a few pegs, I'll confess that of Stephen Sondheim's musicals I didn't know much about Into the Woods going into the film adaptation, save being familiar with a few of the songs from Tony Award telecasts and a few CDs. Luckily, such knowledge wasn't a prerequisite for enjoying the film, which was a great deal of fun and full of terrific performances.

Into the Woods follows characters from some of your favorite fairytales—Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is desperate to go to the royal festival and meet the prince (Chris Pine), despite the machinations of her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters; young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is being badgered by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to go to the marketplace and sell their ailing cow; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off to her grandmother's house; and a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are desperate to have a child.

One day when lamenting their childless lives, the baker and his wife are visited by a devious witch (Meryl Streep), who is also their neighbor. She admits to putting a curse on their house after the baker's father stole some produce from her garden as well as some magic beans years ago. (The witch's loss of the beans led to her transformation from a beauty to a crone.) But being a generous witch (aren't they all?), she offers to reverse the curse, provided the couple bring her four items before the blue moon three days hence—a cow as white as milk; a cape as red as blood; a slipper as pure as gold; and hair as yellow as corn. Sounds easy, no?

The baker and his wife make their way into the woods (go figure) to find these items, and they encounter Jack, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood, and also learn that Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) has been banished to a high, doorless tower by the witch. Of course, with any good fairytales, each of the characters possesses something the couple needs to get to the witch—but how to get them? And the witch, meanwhile, is desperate to keep Rapunzel from leaving her and seeing the world, which becomes more of a challenge when Rapunzel meets the prince's brother (Billy Magnussen).

The couple's quest is not without its challenges, and each character learns some valuable lessons. In fact, if I was to point out any weak spot in the movie in my opinion, it was that it felt a little preachy, as each character learned the moral of their particular fairytale. These lessons weren't without context, and obviously, when delivered musically, they're much more palatable, but I felt as if they were hammered home a bit too much. But that being said, it didn't stop me from getting choked up, big sap that I am, or from enjoying the movie from start to finish.

There isn't a weak link among the performances in this movie, unlike in many adaptations of Broadway musicals (Russell Crowe as Javert, cough, cough). Meryl Streep is absolutely fantastic as the witch, in stronger voice than she's ever been before, and chewing up the scenery as if it were coated in chocolate. I've waxed poetically before about my total infatuation with Anna Kendrick, and she is both headstrong and introspective as Cinderella. But equally impressive were those performers whose singing ability I wasn't aware of prior to this movie—Emily Blunt does a wonderful job with her emotionally charged role; James Corden is charismatic and charming, and a bumbling ball of energy; and Chris Pine is a prince in the Gaston model, who is equally as infatuated with himself as he is with the bewitching runaway princess. (The scene where he and his brother lament their romantic problems is well-sung and hysterically cheesy.) Theater veterans Huttlestone and Crawford do quite well, and Johnny Depp is pleasantly slimy and menacing as the wolf who takes a shine to Little Red Riding Hood.

This was a fun, sweet, and dynamic movie which had me singing along, laughing, and even tearing up (whatever). Definitely one to watch if you're a fan of musicals. They just don't make them like this anymore...

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