Special Christmas Post: A Spoiler-tastic Review of Into the Woods

I couldn’t wait until Saturday, and so my Christmas gift to you all is this special edition late night Christmas review of Into the Woods, a movie which I have been both dreading and looking forward to.

There are going to be a lot of spoilers, so please don’t read further if you haven’t seen it. Spoilers will be marked.

I’ve warned you.

Alright, so to start, I’ve been terrified of this movie ever since I heard of it. The movie musical has, in years past, been very hit or miss. Chicago (2002) was incredible. Phantom of the Opera (2004) was visually stunning, but suffered from a distracting gap between those who could sing well and those who couldn’t. Dreamgirls (2006) was powerful and gorgeously acted. Sweeney Todd (2007) slashed (pun intended) the original musical to ribbons, but managed to arrange the salvaged pieces into something quite enjoyable and beautiful. Hairspray (2007) was a great adaptation that was very true to the spirit of the original. Mamma Mia! (2008) featured some truly atrocious singing, but was a heck of a lot of fun to watch and sing along to loudly enough that one couldn’t really hear the singers. Les Miserables (2012) had some great moments, but an oddly small scope, and its insistence on having all its actors gasp and sob their way through broken, choked off songs made it a bit of an unpleasant slog (in my opinion).

When I heard that Disney was in charge of doing Into the Woods and that they were planning on “sanitizing” it for younger audiences, I was uneasy. I don’t mind changes being made to make the story work for screen (for example, Phantom‘s decision to move the chandelier crash was an inspired decision), but it sounded like they were planning on completely changing this un-fairy tale into a children’s movie. I felt compelled to see it, nonetheless. Director Rob Marshall had, after all, given us Chicago. And his other musical venture, Nine (2009) was entertaining, if lacking in the character development area.

Good Movie Rating: 8/10
Fun Movie Rating: 8/10

Into the Woods twines together several well known fairy-tales (sort of Once Upon a Time pre-Storybrooke, with music!). Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is an abused girl longing to go to the king’s festival and see the Prince (Chris Pine). Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is a silly boy who’s tasked with selling the family cow by his mother (Tracey Ullman). Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off to visit her grandmother and crosses paths with a wolf (Johnny Depp). And a poor baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) long for a child and cross paths with Rapunzel’s (Mackenzie Mauzy) witch-stepmother (Meryl Streep). While the baker and his wife seek to assemble the ingredients needed to complete a potion which will give them a child, the other fairy tales play out fairly true to the well known stories (following the Grimm’s versions closely in some cases).

This movie is a beautiful, faithful adaptation that works really well until the second half. That’s where most of the changes were made. Overall, it’s a lot of fun, but the changes in the second half sort of undermine what the musical was doing originally. But the movie is internally consistent for the most part, and only fans of the original musical are going to notice the changes.

The music is phenomenal. Seriously, you should buy the cast recording. The songs are pitch perfect and done beautifully. Anna Kendrick was my favorite character, making “On the Steps of the Palace” my absolute favorite song from this movie, but everyone else handles all of their songs perfectly. It’s clear that some computer nudging was required in a few places to keep everyone on pitch, but it’s not distracting at all. Emily Blunt’s version of “Moments in the Woods” is excellent, as is Meryl Streep’s dynamic “The Last Midnight.” Daniel Huttlestone infuses “Giants in the Sky” with so much childlike enthusiasm, it makes you want to run after him and climb that beanstalk yourself. And Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen (the two princes) deliver a thoroughly entertaining and hilarious “Agony.” Bravo everyone!

Visually, the movie works very well. The eponymous wood is suitably gloomy, colorful, confusing, and metaphorical. It’s clear, in places, that director Rob Marshall was trying to keep the stage musical scope, not allowing himself to go too wild with how much we see. I liked that “Giants in the Sky” was primarily left up to Jack. We get a few flashback moments of him climbing the beanstalk, but the scene he describes is left in his capable hands. I was a bit worried that Marshall would go all out with the budget and have everything that happens offstage in the original show up fully in this one, distracting from the main action. But since the show is about telling stories, I like that he lets the characters tell their stories and leaves it up to the audience’s imagination what’s happening in their narratives.

For the first half of the movie, I was aghast how carefully and perfectly it followed the original. There were minor tweaks here and there, but it was everything I wanted it to be. Corden and Blunt have amazing chemistry, and make such a sweet couple. Streep’s Witch is wild and crazy and lovable. Kendrick is such a likable, believable Cinderella, she makes other Cinderellas seem shallow and superficial. I just adored her. She makes Cinderella a genuine human character instead of a fluffy snowflake who seems content with being abused by her wicked stepmother for so long. I’ll stop crushing on Kendrick, because I really could go on and on, but long story short, the first half is perfect. Absolutely perfect.

The second half is not bad, but it removes a lot of the stuff that made the second half necessary to the original show. Originally, the first half is the fairy tale and the second half is the “After Happily Ever After” wherein we see that just because everyone got their wish, it doesn’t mean they’re happy. The two princes discover they prefer chasing girls to actually marrying them, so they go off in search of other unobtainable women (namely Sleeping Beauty and Snow White). The Baker and his wife have a child, but find that they don’t have much space in their little cottage. Rapunzel is a nervous wreck, not knowing anything about existing in society. Jack and his mother have money, but they’re still not quite happy. The second half isn’t just about consequences, but it’s about unrealistic expectations.

In the movie (SPOILERS FOLLOW) we don’t get much of that. It feels more like a delayed happy ending, as opposed to the “realistic” ending of the musical. As such, the pacing of the whole film sort of veers off in a new direction in the end. We get the tragedy, for the most part, but all of the traces of the character’s doubts and feelings about their happy endings are erased. We lose Rapunzel’s mental breakdown and death (in fact she vanishes completely after the “Ever After” sequence). We also lose the reprise of “Agony” where the princes talk about how they aren’t happy with their current wives.

I get that the filmmakers needed to retool things so as to fit a two act musical into a three act film, but the two act structure allows for the mirror image of fairy tale and real life. In film form, we get a two act fairy tale and a third act where everything suddenly becomes tragic. It works, but it loses a lot of its resonance and meaning in the process, making the whole narrative a bit uneven (but I imagine such unevenness would only be noticed by fans of the original).

(END SPOILERS)

It’s not a bad movie, by any means. It’s a lot of fun and elicited a lot of laughter from the audience. And, if the third act had been extended, it really would have slowed the whole film down. I think the filmmakers made the right call with what they had. Folks will just have to see the show on Broadway or get the DVD of the original Broadway cast to get the longer, more complex version. This more streamlined film version holds up pretty well, and I think audiences will love it.

Note to parents, while this film does stay true to its PG rating, there are some frightening images which scared some of the kids in the audience. Be forewarned, this is not based on the Disney versions of the fairy tales.

Go see it, and let me know in the comments what you think. below is a musical excerpt of my favorite song, “On the Steps of the Palace.” Enjoy!

I will see you all on Saturday morning for the next installment of James Bond Overdose!

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