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Friday, 16 January 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

I've had a very frustrating and aggravating time (nothing whatsoever to do with movies) since watching the above film yesterday afternoon, so I'm probably not in the best frame of mind to give it as glowing a review as I might have. On the other hand, although it was not my choice to see this film, I was glad that I did, and found it an interesting watch. That is not to say that I might not have made a few negative comments regardless. Anyhow, here goes:

People have been trying to bring Stephen Sondheim's musical to the screen for some years now without success, before this Disney-financed, Rob Marshall effort. Being largely sung, without much spoken dialogue was part of the problem, but let's face it, that didn't stop "Les Miserables" being a big hit. It's probably more a case of Sondheim's music not being to the populist taste; while all of it is pleasant enough and largely clever enough, there is no single number in the show which leaves you humming as you exit the theatre.

The story is a mash-up of certain well-known fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel, plus a wicked witch and the aging childless couple characters from Tom Thumb), with the various protagonists being thrown together in the deep, dark, and dangerous woods. However this was never intended as a tale for children, but rather for adults who are more able to deal with some very dark themes. It is probably this dichotomy between children's bedtime stories and some very bleak business that has alienated some of the movie's audience. Despite doing reasonable business Stateside, there are a host of negative users' comments on IMDb.

In the all-star cast, the standout performances are from Meryl Streep as the ugly witch and Emily Blunt as the baker's wife. In order to lift her curse of barrenness, the latter and her husband (James Corden) must provide Streep with a milk-white cow, a red cloak. a golden slipper, and spun-blonde hair; these will counteract the spell cast when the baker's father stole Streep's magic beans, to say nothing of restoring her to her previous beauty. So we have the characters dashing about their business and crossing paths in the woods before the witch's deadline.

I knew that Streep possesses a fine singing voice, but Blunt's melodious one came as a pleasant surprise. I thought that Corden (who started his professional life here as a fat sit-com character and who has now graduated to a slightly chubby Hollywood player) made a reasonable fist of his role. Anna Kendrick who has a background of musical theatre was in fine voice as Cinderella, but is it too awful to say that she is just not pretty enough for the role? Of the youngsters, Daniel Huddlestone as Jack was very good indeed, but Lilla Crawford (whoever she may be) was guilty of creating ear-ache in the role of Little Red. As for Johnny Depp's cameo as the wolf who gobbled up grandma, this was an amusing enough -- and mercifully short -- turn.

Other cast members who gave their all, more or less successfully, include Christine Baranski as Cinderella's wicked stepmother, Tracey Ullman as Jack's mom, Frances de la Tour as a giantess (the murdered giant's widow!), and Chris Pine as Cinderella's prince. The latter has been roundly criticised in some circles, but I thought he did well, assuming a hammy and humorous tone in his duet with Rapunzel's lover. If only more of the characters had adopted this slightly tongue-in-cheek approach, the film might have had more appeal.

The biggest problem however, apart from being over-long, is that this is a film of two halves. One would expect fairy tales to end with 'they all lived happily ever after', but Sondheim's musical takes a much darker turn. In the second half of the film, each of the characters loses someone dear to them -- there are a number of off-screen deaths, which turn the earlier feel-good factor into something downbeat and miserable. We are meant to take heart in the final scenes by Corden gathering the very few survivors around his knees to 'tell them a story'. I would guess that most people prefer the magic of fairy tales to the harsh realities of life, which this film underlines with a vengeance.
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