The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Into the Woods

Even if you know little or nothing about Broadway musicals, you probably know that people who like Into the Woods tend to be very passionate about it. The Stephen Sondheim show has earned a legion of diehard fans since it first debuted in 1987. Sondheim's unique visions can be tricky to translate to the screen. Tim Burton largely succeeded with Sweeney Todd, and director Rob Marshall (Chicago) succeeds well enough with his film version of Into the Woods. It's by no means perfect, but it gets enough things right to ensure some entertainment.

James Corden and Emily Blunt play the Baker and his Wife. They've been rendered unable to conceive a child, thanks to a curse put in place by a Witch (Meryl Streep). In order to have the curse lifted, the Witch requests they procure several items: the shoe of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Red Riding Hood's cape, some of Rapunzel's hair, and the white cow that a young boy named Jack is willing to trade for some magic beans. Getting these things is easy; getting them all together at the same time proves much harder. They aren't the only ones on a quest. Cinderella's Prince (Chris Pine) is seeking her out, and a big bad Wolf (Johnny Depp) has his sights on the little girl with the red cape.

This trip through various fairy tales is obviously more mainstream than the tale of a murderous barber, so it's no surprise that Into the Woods has received such lavish onscreen treatment. Obviously, the music is fantastic. Sondheim created complex musical structures that the all-star cast performs admirably. One tune, entitled “Your Fault,” is a masterpiece of construction, as multiple characters simultaneously blame one another for their increasing misfortunes. If not as immediately catchy as the songs in, say, Hairspray or Grease, the ones in Into the Woods skillfully advance the story while also amusing the viewer with word trickery and unpredictable rhythms.

The stars, none of whom are exactly well-known for musical theater, do a terrific job. Streep and Kendrick have sung onscreen before (in Mamma Mia! and Pitch Perfect, respectively), but who knew that Emily Blunt and Chris Pine could also sing at this level? The casting is spot-on, and everyone performs well enough that you never get that awkward vibe you sometimes find when a non-singing actor is put into a musical (i.e. Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine or Pierce Brosnan in the aforementioned Mamma Mia!). They're all great, but Meryl Streep is clearly – and unsurprisingly – the standout. She chews the scenery mercilessly, but it's the kind of role where that sort of thing is totally appropriate. Because of her, and a sharp screenplay adaptation by James Lapine, the movie is far, far funnier than I expected it to be. Many things, from the comic panic of the Baker and his Wife to the romantic insecurities of Cinderella, elicit laughs.

For as many good qualities as it has, Into the Woods also possesses one major flaw. Everything about the film – the production design, the cinematography, the visual effects, the tone of the story and the performances – is so big, bold, and over the top that it becomes a little tiresome after a while. When Johnny Depp is the most subtle thing in your movie, you know you've maybe gone a little too far over the top. Marshall seems to feel a need to have every single second of the movie be dazzling-beyond-belief, and in doing so, he loses some of the emotional impact. (My wife, who screened the film with me, astutely noted that “People die, and you don't even feel bad about it.”) Make no mistake, the production qualities are undeniably impressive; they're just done to something bordering on overkill at times. I'm told this quality is consistent with the stage show, yet a stage show doesn't have endlessly swirling cameras and distinctly unsubtle CGI effects.

The end result is that Into the Woods doesn't quite rank among the best screen musicals of the modern era. Nonetheless, the humor, music, and quality of the performances are enough to make it an enjoyable, if slightly hollow, experience for fans and newcomers alike.

( out of four)

Into the Woods is rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.

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