Thursday, December 25, 2014

Into the Woods review; an unexpected treat

Into the Woods snuck under the radar for me this year.  The film is actually based on a play by the same name.  It tells the crossing stories of some of our favorite fairy tales; such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Giant Beanstalk, and an original story involving two childless bakers.  The director and cast of the film are truly A-listers.  Rob Marshall has a number of hits under his belt, and is an Academy Award nominee (Chicago).  The movie stars Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden and Chris Pine.  Need anymore reasons to watch this Disney musical?  I think not... let's go!

What I liked about the film:
The Story
The play opened nearly 30 years ago.  And it had the foresight to tell multiple stories that would ultimately all come together.  We've seen this a thousand times with such films as Crash and Love, Actually.  We've even seen it specific to the fairy tale genre; with the terrific, first two Shrek movies.  But Into the Woods is different.  The characters are all integral to the story, they are not just making a cameo.  The central story in the film is that of the childless bakers; and every other story fits beautifully into the mix.  I love the creativity of the writing and the way the film finds a way to tell a well thought out, cohesive story.

The Actors
There are some great characters in the film, that we all know and love.  And we've seen them all in film and television over the years; but I love how Into the Woods puts its own spin on the characters.  The actors totally commit to the characters and make us fall in love with them all over again.  Meryl Streep... at this point in her career do I really need to tell you how amazing she is, in EVERYTHING?  She's terrific as the witch with  more to her than meets the eye.  Johnny Depp has a small, but great role as the big bad wolf.  I hate to say this, but I'm almost glad he only had a small role; rather than the movie turning into the Johnny Depp Show.  He does well and even sings in the film.

James Corden and Emily Blunt play the bakers and they're great.  Corden is more well known in England, but has done some work here in the states as well.  And Emily Blunt is so good in the movie.  Her character has so many different aspects to her.  She's smart, curious, frightened, etc., and Blunt plays it beautifully.  Also great in the film is Anna Kendrick as Cinderella.  We knew Kendrick could sing after her role in Pitch Perfect, but she does more than sing in this movie.  She has some funny lines and  balances the character with some much needed heart (I'll talk about this later).

I've saved the best for last people... Chris Pine is the best I've EVER seen him in this film.  He plays Cinderella's Prince Charming and is bloody fantastic in the film!  He is a part of the most memorable song in the film, 'Agony'.  I don't want to spoil anything, but Pine plays the character with such douchebaggery that you can't help but fall in love with him.  Seriously, Pine's performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Smart and Clever
The movie is very smart and the writing is incredibly clever.  What I loved the most about the writing is that the movie is very self-aware.  There is a scene where Blunt has a line where she says, 'I'm in the wrong story'; and that's just one example of how the film shows that it's not taking itself too seriously.  There are a few scenes in which Cinderella is running away from the prince.  The scenes are hilarious in their comedic timing and their execution.  Great stuff here.

What I didn't like about the film:
The Setting
Unfortunately, there are a few glaring issues with the film.  This first one is not as big of a deal, but I feel it's an important one.  The movie feels like, well, a play.  At the time I watched the movie, I didn't know it was based on a play.  But I remember sitting in the theater thinking to myself, 'this would be really good onstage'.  There are a few scenes during Into the Woods that left me feeling claustrophobic, with all the major characters in such a confined space.  To be fair, the Production Designer, Dennis Gassner did a great job with the sets.

The Pacing
The movie's greatest weakness is it's pacing.  It has to be an incredibly difficult task to adapt a two-part play, into a three-act film.  The pacing is so off, it pulled me out of the movie, several times.  The singing is fantastic, but the scenes connecting the musical numbers just weren't up to par.

The Heart
I love these characters, no matter how old I get.  But I love them because of their rich history across various mediums, not because the movie made me love them.  The characters are all underdeveloped, and there is very little heart written into the script.  Don't get me wrong, I was very entertained, but didn't care for each of the characters like I have in the past, when their story's were told independently.  It may appear to be a nitpick, but it's crucial to a film like this, that we care about the characters, no matter how many are featured.  Towards the end of the film, a character dies. It's so abrupt, and just brushed over, that I wasn't sure what just happened.  We spend the whole movie invested in these characters, I felt they deserved much better character arcs. 

The Verdict:
An Unexpected Treat
I really really enjoyed the film.  It's smart and clever writing, and amazing cast, made me care a little less about it's shortcomings.  I almost wish I would have known it was based on a play before I saw the film; that way I would have been more understanding of why the filmmakers did what they did. Not that it should matter; as I always say, a movie is a movie and a play is a play.  It's better than most movies that tell multiple stories that come together, but is not quite good enough to be considered an instant classic.