Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Into the Woods

Alternate Title:  The Things I do for Meryl

One sentence synopsis:    Multiple classic fairy tales take place simultaneously within a fantasy forest.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm on record as stating that Meryl Streep is the greatest actor in the world, and she is, indeed she's been the greatest actor in the world since the early 80s. I am also however on record as stating that because of this, I am willing to see any movie that Meryl Streep finds herself in. And that, as it turns out, is a dangerous statement to make, because Meryl Streep makes all sorts of movies, many of which I would otherwise have no interest in whatsoever. And while she is the greatest actor alive, it does not follow that all her films are masterpieces. The Homesman for instance only had her in it for all of about three minutes, and while she wasn't the reason I went to see that movie, she has been the reason I've gone to see such pieces of cinematic masterwork as The River Wild, Lions for Lambs, or The Hours. As such, I always get a bit nervous when Streep comes to my local cinema, as she does with regularity some two to four times yearly. And this time she not only arrives, but marches in under the banner of the Unholy Mouse. Gods preserve us.

Into the Woods, based on a Sondheim musical I've contrived mightily to miss, is essentially Disney combining thirty-odd years of its animated output into one live-action musical. Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and no doubt a bunch of other stories I know nothing about, all rolled up into one semi-deconstructed omni-fairy-tale. All set to a typical Sondheim-style score, a style that basically consists of re-writing West Side Story with different lyrics and a key change or two.

Okay, I'm kidding. Sondheim is just not my thing usually, but there's nothing wrong with a musical done well. Not that there's that many examples of that in the last twenty years, but if one were to start, it would not be a bad idea to start with Streep, who in addition to being the finest actor in the world, has a rock solid background in musical film and theater. Here she plays the ubiquitous Wicked Witch of half the fairy tales that have ever existed, not quite as wicked but as a jaded, cynical Greek Chorus sort of thing, singing at length about how stupid, venal, greedy, and generally awful our main characters are. Streep is entertaining in this film, in a sort of easy, Nicholas Cage-crazed sort of way (wound down for a PG rating of course), strutting about perpetually frustrated by the incompetence of the characters around her. A clever running gag involves her setting a difficult task for two young would-be parents to shatter a curse she has placed on them, only to wind up having to practically drag the hapless protagonists through the forest just to keep them on the right track. But her main role in the film is to introduce us to the deconstructive element at work here...

... sort of. Into the Woods isn't really a straight re-telling of the various classic fairy tales of yesteryear, but neither is it really a deconstruction. The characters roaming through these incredibly crowded woods aren't really self-aware about their situation, but neither are they content to simply follow the formula from start to finish, if only because all of the assorted chaos that comes with hurling Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and several more I know nothing about together at the same time. This chaos works better for some than others. Chris Pine's (Kirk from New-Trek) Prince Charming is a ludicrous pastiche of boring hero archetypes in these sorts of stories, particularly during a standout song alongside Billy Magnussen (Prince Charming... 2?), where they compete to see who can employ more melodrama to describe the heartache they feel at having fallen in love with their respective princesses in all of nine seconds. A sequence later on when he tries to seduce the Baker's Wife (just roll with it), he excuses with a shrug over the fact that he's "supposed to be charming, not sincere". Speaking of Blunt, who is fast becoming one of my favorite recent actresses, she too does fine with the material at hand, not an easy thing when the script periodically calls for you to burst into song to narrate your own feelings. Similar plaudits go to Anna Kendrick, of Twilight (*shudder*) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. It turns out that Kendrick has a beautiful singing voice, which she demonstrates quite well across the film. Finally, there's a handful of other, smaller roles that go to actors I'm always glad to see, among them Tracy Ulman (Robin Hood: Men in Tights) as Jack (of the Beanstalk)'s long-suffering mother, played as only Tracy Ulman plays irascible frazzled woman. Joanna Riding meanwhile, a stage actress I've seen in a handful of places, takes an almost ghoulish turn with Cinderella's mother, unhesitatingly chopping her daughters' feet to pieces to make them fit into the famous slipper, only to have her eyes pecked out by a flight of birds.

You know, for kids!

Things Havoc disliked:  This may sound like a bit of a strange thing to complain about, but there's an awful lot of death in this movie.

Yes, I know the original fairy tales had a lot of death, and no, I'm not usually against spicing up a fairy tale with a bit of killing, but there's ways to do death in musicals like this, or in movies in general, and this isn't it. The film treats its plot like a throwaway concept, irrelevant as it is in most musicals and fairy tales, until all of a sudden it turns out we were supposed to be paying attention as characters die offscreen, seemingly at random. I don't mind that the deaths aren't shown, it's a kids film from Disney, this is how it goes. I mind that the deaths come out of nowhere, and are so well hidden that there are a number of characters I did not realize were dead until I looked the synopsis at home preparatory to writing this review. I spent half the movie wondering when certain characters were going to come back to sing anew, only to gradually realize that they were gone for good. This wasn't helped by the characters barely reacting to most of the attendant deaths.

But I get it, you don't go to a movie like this for the edgy plot, you go for whimsy and for the singing. But unfortunately not all of either is up to snuff. The singing across the board is... uneven. Part of the problem is the child actors, unknowns Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, who simply are not up to the task of singing alongside Blint or Streep, being respectively flat and generally off-key. I hate to pick on kids, but there's a seeming infinity of excellent child actors in Hollywood nowadays, and why you would select these two and then give them 40% of the songs in the film, is entirely beyond me. Worse yet is Johnny Depp, yes Johnny Depp, who shows up early on in the film playing the Big Bad Wolf (because of course he'd find something weird to play), gets a single song with Little Red Riding Hood filled with weirdly pedophilic undertones, and then disappears for the rest of the movie. Depp has not had a great run of things for the last decade or so, but this is almost insulting, effectively a cameo, and one that lacks quality. Depp hams it up like he's trying to seduce the scenery, and it's no great loss when Red Riding Hood winds up skinning him and wearing him as a hat.

Final thoughts:   Ultimately, Into the Woods is a very ephemeral film, in that it's not so much that it does anything wrong, that it does nothing really outstandingly right either. Perhaps the movie just wasn't made for me, or some ineffable quality of the musical it was based on simply failed to make the transition, but while the movie was diverting enough, it wasn't anything I'm going to remember on through the years. Frankly, with a live-action Cinderella coming out later this spring, I'm surprised this film was made at all, but then I suppose the need to push out something at Christmas to compete with the Annie remake triumphed over all.

Can't let Columbia ruin the holidays, after all.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  China's latest action movie.

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