Monday, 12 January 2015

Film: 'Into the Woods'

I approached seeing this with huge trepidation, mainly because I know the stage piece so well and like it a lot - but also my not being a big fan of filmed theatre musicals generally (though there has been a modest number attaining my approval). This is one which I found very agreeable on the whole.
I'd been additionally put on guard by reading only yesterday a distinctly unenthusiastic review, as well as a present IMDb average rating of a lukewarm 6.5.

Drawing together the four disparate well-known fairy tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella it adds another story, one of a baker (James Corden, 'surprisingly' good) and his wife (Emily Blunt) condemned to be childless by the wicked witch next door (Meryl Streep) who will only lift her curse if they obtain for her four key articles, one from each of the other tales.
There's also Johnny Depp playing the Big Bad Wolf in what is little more than a cameo.

The first part of the film goes swimmingly and I have no major complaints at all. It's good to be able to hear all the words of Sondheim at his acerbically finest and cleverest. But, as in the original stage version, there is a violent switch of mood about two-thirds through when it takes the tales beyond their 'happy-ever-after' conclusions and gets the characters darkly moralising on the consequences of getting ones wish. I wasn't sure if such a wide contrast between the frequent comic moments in the first part and the subsequent serious reflections worked successfully in the theatre and, to my mind, it works even less so in this film, the latter providing an over-extended longueur which was starting to try my patience even though I knew how and when it would end.

Rob Marshall's direction was pretty faultless and quite imaginative - and he used cinematic effects to the maximum which, of course, enabled it to be more literal than a stage production could ever be.
As to the cast, although Streep was as good as one comes to expect, I personally preferred Julia McKenzie in the part where she hammed it up gloriously with pantomime-like relish perfectly in tune with the part, and evincing hisses from the live theatre audience. I wasn't even slightly tempted to hiss Streep.
In the West End production I saw, the wolf was played by an actor wearing the full head of that animal rather than the minimally suggested one of Depp. I would have preferred it to have been so in the film too, and I think it would have made it more interesting than seeing Depp's familiar, hardly made-up, face yet again. But he plays the small part quite well - better than, I think, he did for 'Sweeney Todd' where he didn't look visually right for me.  
Others in the cast include Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski and.........Chris Pine. 

I think most cinema audiences won't know the stage musical - or even that this is a musical at all. If they don't know it I'd be surprised if they don't like the first main section, but may well come to be perplexed when the big switch happens, as I was the first time I saw it on stage.  But this is a faithful rendition of the original and I can't really suggest a major way in which it could have been improved.
Btw: Sitting a few rows behind me was a group of four 'mature' adults. One of the men had one of those infectious laughs, the kind that makes one laugh all the more - and, very importantly, he was laughing in all the right places. His welcome presence enhanced my experience.

I may well go to see this film again..............................7.5.


  1. I am not a lover of Sondheim
    So I'll pass.....mind you chris pine is a sweetie so I may make the effort

    1. If you don't appreciate Sondheim you're one of a great number, J.G. I've never had the problem with him that so many seem to have, though he doesn't write the sort of material that 'washes over' one. He does require continuous attention, which pays back handsomely in terms of satisfaction..

      Mr Pine is as good a reason as you can get for seeing this film. I'd describe his appearance as 'Phwarrrrrr!'

  2. Meryl, Pine and Sondheim got my butt in the seat, and I really enjoyed it!

    1. Those are three very good reasons to see it, Bob, and I concur with all of them. As I suggest, it's hard to think of ways the film could be improved, but it does also bring to the screen the same major fault (in my view) which the original stage show possesses, viz the mile-wide gulf between the light, frothy opening section and the bleakness of its rejoinder. Still, if it's any consolation, it's not quite as disastrous to me as the difference between the two halves of 'Sunday in the Park with George'.

  3. This is one of my favorite musicals, so I went in wary. I ended up very much enjoying it. I missed some of the more touching and humorous songs from Act II; and it took away some of the violence (Disney sugar coating). All the same I liked it . However I recall people seeing the actual play; it was/is a metaphor for AIDS. This was lost in the movie version.

    1. I wasn't overly conscious of the cuts, Dr Spo, but have to admit that it's a general reason for my bias against the films of stage musicals, which always turn out to be shorter than the original theatrical version - and this one is that by some 40 mins. I was reassured, however, by the presence and input of both Sondheim and Lapine on set (as Sondheim also was for 'Sweeney', despite its unimpressive result ), which gave it some measure of a stamp of authority.
      I agree that the film was a bit less gritty than the stage show, but a metaphor for AIDS? Really? I'd certainly not thought of that, though maybe the thought ought to have come to me. Now I'll have to re-appraise my view of the whole show - though I suspect that, unless that particular POV is verified be the creators, it's an unwarranted distraction. If it was there, as you say, it's certainly in no way present in this film.

    2. AIDS? Really? I had never even heard of the play until this movie came out and back in the late 1980s and early 1990s I went to anything and everything that had AIDS awareness associated with it as all of my friends were dying around me. It's what we did, but I never heard of it....definitely did not catch a metaphor in the movie. Would like to know more on this subject.

    3. I've been giving this idea of 'Woods' being a metaphor for AIDS some thought, FB, and I honestly can't seriously see it. I think the notion should be just left untouched - with the thought that if it is, in fact, there, it's missing just about everybody, so what was the point of making it?

    4. Fearsome - yes it was a metaphor about AIDS; the more obvious references are in the play, not in the movie.

  4. Glad you approved! I'm dying to see this. Wonder if it will ever get here or if I'll have to wait for it on our cable movie rentals.

    1. Mitch, has to be a 'must' whether or not one thinks it was successfully transferred to screen - and you'll have gathered that I think that by and large it was.
      It's had a general nationwide release in the big cinema chains here and certainly hasn't bombed, so there's no reason to think that it'll be the same throughout Europe. However, it must be recognised that Sondheim's ultra-clever and slick way with lyrics may not be universally appreciated by our geographical neighbours. I really do hope you get to see it in a cinema - where it deserves to be seen.

  5. Ray,
    I wasn't predisposed to see this movie as I too do not prefer Broadway type musicals made into movies. But the inclusion of Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski in the cast pushes me to rent "Into the Woods" as one of the rare musicals that I will see. I am rather tired of Johnny Depp and his fantastical makeup excursions and I never got the appeal of Tracey Ullman. But based on your yet another excellent review, I am adding this movie to my Netflix queue.

    1. It needs to be seen, Ron - maybe just the once. And don't worry TOO much about Mr Depp. It's only a brief part and his make-up is scant.
      I'll be surprised if you don't get something out of the film - though, of course, it can't beat the live show.

    2. I liked this movie very much. I have seen the musical onstage a few times, most recently last summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I've seen the PBS televised version many times. I'm not a cultist about the show however.

      I think the cast was excellent. I liked Corden less than you did but I was totally wowed by Emily Blunt in a role so closely associated in my mind with Joanna Gleason. Ditto Streep's uphill battle occupy a space dominated in memory by Bernadette Peters. The weak link for me was Depp.

      Re: the AIDS metaphor. I remember it being discussed at the time. My recollection of the syllogism is the darkness of the second act after the Happily Ever After finale to Act ! represented the fear, uncertainty, and dread of the time. The giant ravaging the land represented disease. There was all of the 'blame the victim' lyrics/dialogue which was a common theme regarding AIDS at the time. In the end, the survivors come together and redefine 'family' by creating a 'family of choice' to support each other. I disagree with Spo that it was sanitized from the film. I just think the issue isn't as scaring and top-of-mind as it was in the late 80's when the show was running.

    3. H.K., I think my liking of Corden was part of a rebound in my having been nervous of his being unsatisfactory in the part. But I was impressed with how he carried it off.
      I thought Emily Blunt was pretty good too though not quite the stand-out that you felt she was.
      I thought Streep was a shade too earnest in the part, which really requires some subtle knowing nods and winks to the audience - certainly in the first part. But then, like you, my template is the first one I saw as the witch, in my case that being Julia Mckenzie.
      Johnny Depp was....well, Johnny Depp.
      Yes, the video I've got is the live one with Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason, and it's in a different class from the film.

      'Fearsome Beard' and I have had deep correspondence through e-mail on the AIDS aspect. We both are yet to be convinced that it was intended to be there, but I've no doubt that it could not fail to have been high in Sondheim's and Lapine's minds as the show was being constructed. If it wasn't put in on purpose it's entirely possible that it's there on a subconscious level.
      You may be right in suggesting that because the urgency of the subject has dropped in public consciousness (though, of course, still maybe as dire for any current 'victims' and their closest, though not quite as hopeless as it was 30 years ago) that the severity of the problem has lessened our perception of it to the extent that we've got to search it out.

      On one of my other blogs someone (Paul, I think) tells me that they are going to film 'Follies' next - starring Meryl once more. My nervousness comes all over me again!

    4. Interesting and Sean may me correct about the AIDS-related subtext. I recall discussions of it at the time but I don't recall anything from Sondheim or Lapine stating it was intentional.

      Here's a link to a New Yorker piece that speaks to the issue:

      I found another piece at: which speaks directly to your question about creative intent. It quotes Sondheim as saying; " “We never meant this to be specific. The trouble with fables is everyone looks for symbolism.”. Whether Mr. S was being candid or disingenuous is anyone's guess. I suspect saying; ' oh's all about AIDS' might have hurt ticket sales.

      A Google search of 'Into the Woods AIDS' yields a large number of references. I didn't review them all.

      In the end it may have existed as a metaphor only in the mind of (some of) the audience. That's how I remember it. Of course it wasn't too hard to locate AIDS metaphors in those days, intentional or otherwise. :-)

    5. I'll follow those links up, H.K. Thanks.
      I must say, though, that over recent days the subject has been over-pervading my life to such an extent that I think that for the moment I'll give it a rest - otherwise whenever I see 'Woods' again (stage or this film) I'm going to have all my attention in looking for 'clues', which may or may not be there.
      I'll just say now that I think it's one of those 'after the event' things - looking for evidence for its existence because it fits a neat narrative, and turning everything in that direction whether it was there in the first place or no.