Monday, December 29, 2014

into the woods, magical, musical

Even better than I imagined, Into the Woods is the perfect holiday film. Full of wonderful music by Stephen Sondheim, a cast that is not only stellar, but can sing well, and enough joy and gloom to balance out the roller-coaster emotional terrain that accompanies the holiday season. And if there was any doubt that the movie was a hit with my ten year-old daughter, the evidence was her singing the songs in the car on the ride home, and her ultimate thrill when looking up the lyrics on the internet to discover that I had downloaded the soundtrack from iTunes for her continued enjoyment. How cool is that?

The movie, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha), is great to look at, and uses its CGI to wonderful effect, just to add a little magic when needed. Hollywood, take note, CGI should be used as a tool, not an excuse for a whole movie. But what really enchants are the songs. The original fairytale mash-up, Into the Woods loosely follows the stories of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), while introducing a couple that yearns for a child, The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who, may see their wish to become parents granted if they can help reverse a curse by the local witch (Meryl Streep).

Meryl Streep makes a wonderful Witch

Emily Blunt is a stand-out, her performance shining whether she is singing or speaking. Johnny Depp delivers an (appropriate for a change) over-the-top cameo as The Big Bad Wolf ("Hello Little Girl"). But Streep is also wonderful, and aces all of her songs, especially "Children Will Listen." She brings a touching quality to her Witch, who is not quite wicked, if not entirely nice, either.

Everyone in the cast shines. An especially fun surprise is Chris Pine as Cinderella's prince, who states, in maybe his only honest moment, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere." He takes preening and posing to a whole new level, to hilarious effect. His duet mid-way, with his equally humble-brag brother (Billy Magnussen, who has eyes for Rapunzel), "Agony," energizes the film and provides the first clue to the uninitiated that this won't be a completely traditional take on fairy tales. The kid sang "Agony," her favorite number, as we walked out of the theater — for quite a while before asking me what "agony" meant. "Oh! That makes sense!"
[Cinderella's Prince]
Did I abuse her
Or show her disdain?
Why does she run from me?
If I should lose her,
How shall I regain
The heart she has won from me?
Beyond power of speech,
When the one thing you want
Is the only thing out of your reach.

[Rapunzel's Prince]
High in her tower,
She sits by the hour,
Maintaining her hair.
Blithe and becoming and frequently humming
A lighthearted air:

Far more painful than yours,
When you know she would go with you
If there only were doors.

The Baker and his wife bargain with Jack for his cow

Parenthood, especially motherhood, is a theme that twines through the story, from the Witch's strange interpretation of a doting parent - kidnap a beautiful child and lock her up in a tower away from the world — to The Baker and his Wife being willing to do anything to become parents — to Jack's abusive mom (Tracey Ullman) and the few fleeting moments he feels of love in a Giantess's embrace, as he tells the Baker in "Giants in the Sky."
A big tall terrible Giant at the door,
A big tall terrible lady Giant
sweeping the floor.
And she gives you food
And she gives you rest
And she draws you close
To her Giant breast,
And you know things now
that you never knew before,
Not till the sky.
There are many wonderful set pieces, from Cinderella's freeze-frame number "On the Steps of the Palace" to the cast singing "No One is Alone" and the title song. But it is Blunt's Baker's Wife who touched me most deeply, especially in "Moments in the Woods."
Just a moment,
One peculiar passing moment...
Must it all be either less or more,
Either plain or grand?
Is it always "or"?
Is it never "and"?
That's what woods are for:
For those moments in the woods...
I have yet to see the play in live performance, but I have seen a filmed version, featuring original Broadway cast members Bernadette Peters (Witch) and Joanna Gleason (Baker's Wife), which was aired originally in 1991 on American Playhouse. It was very good, and I loved the music, but I found it a bit more sarcastic in tone and the characters not as sympathetic. Big screen close-ups probably help create a more intimate atmosphere in this current version, as do a few judicial trims of reprises, etc. that would work well on stage, but not necessarily on film.

Red on her way to Grandmother's house ...

The woods are a magical place, where anything, good or bad, can happen to these characters, and to the lucky audience. Can't wait to see Into the Woods again.


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