...from Less Hat, Moorhead!
Into the Woods—A friend of mine likes to say that “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and “Pittsburgh” are two of the more aptly named entities in creation. I can’t agree with him about the second; I’ve always been fond of Pittsburgh. But there’s no arguing the grimness of those tales.
So Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods can’t really be called “dark” by comparison to its source material. This retelling of several Grimm yarns is dark only by comparison to the toned-down and glitzed-up style of fairy tales popularized by Disney and its ilk over the past century. Perhaps ironically, it’s Disney that has produced the lavish, star-studded and entertaining movie version of Into the Woods opening today.
Set, like a Ren Faire, in a period-vague Once Upon a Time with elements of the Renaissance, the 19th Century and the 20th Century—the Big Bad Wolf dresses like a swing dancer—Into the Woods weaves the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk around the plight of a Baker and his Wife who are unable to conceive. These two learn from a neighborhood Witch that this is because of a curse upon their house. She gives them the recipe to lift the curse, which brings them into contact with the other characters.
Rob Marshall, who more or less revived the big-screen musical as a viable genre with his 2002 Chicago, directs nimbly, but with an agreeably more straightforward, less hyper-cut style. His work is accomplished, but as usual with musicals, the real key to its success lies in the cast, and the score.
The standouts in the cast, for me, were Meryl Streep, a hoot as the Witch, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s potentially naughty Wife, James Corden as the kindly young Baker, and a startling, apparently genetically-engineered little belter called Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood. Johnny Depp is droll in the brief role of the Wolf, Tracey Ullman is funny as Jack’s fed-up Mum, Anna Kendrick makes a sweet Cinderella, and as her self-impressed Prince Charming, Chris Pine, along with Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, scored spontaneous applause from the preview audience with whom I saw the film for their self-parodying duet “Agony.”
As for the score, it’s very, well, Sondheim-y, which for many is about the highest compliment a score can be paid. It’s pretty, if not, overall, as melodically soaring as some of Sondheim’s; it has a more frenetic, haywire sound, in support of the complex, almost patter-song lyrics. It’s compelling, though—when each number is done, you know you’ve really heard something, and you want to hear it again.
About halfway through the movie—at the end of Act One in the stage version—the plot strands are all ingeniously brought to a traditionally happily-ever-after resolution. But Sondheim and Lapine want to remind us that happily-ever-after is fantasy, and that a wish fulfilled always comes at a price—worth it, maybe, but never painless.
The long second act in which the characters wander the forest, struggling with the consequences of their wishes, is the unconcealed point of Into the Woods. But while there is much good music and comedy in this section, you can feel the impatience of the audience—plenty of them were quite satisfied with the corny fake ending, and palpably regard this elaboration as a tiresome imposition (I understand the school-play version of the show simply drops Act Two). It isn’t enough to ruin Into the Woods, but many viewers would have been perfectly happy with happily-ever-after.
Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s make this triceratops skeleton come to life in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb our Christmas Day MOTW…