"Into the Woods" Review: Sondheim musical gets middling adaptation

Once upon a time, I saw the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods” featuring Vanessa Williams as the Witch.  While the James Lapine-Stephen Sondheim musical has never been my favorite bit of theater—nor my favorite Sondheim work—I felt an affection and a closeness to the characters I saw on the stage, and that from the balcony.

The new Rob Marshall directed film has a ton of star-power, led by Meryl Streep as the Witch, but there is something about it all that leaves one feeling far more cold than the Broadway revival (which was directed by Lapine).  As near as I can make out, that something has to do, almost entirely, with the way it’s shot.

The tale is brilliant. Lapine has written the screenplay based on his original work with Sondheim.  It is best described as a mash-up of various fairy tales which has been formulated so that Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack of the Beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone), as well as a Baker (James Corden) & his wife (Emily Blunt) all cross paths in an enchanted kingdom.  You get to see the stories you generally know spun just a little bit and all held together by the Baker and his wife trying to get various items so as to alleviate the Witch’s curse.

For the most part, the performances are solid.  Corden and Blunt are particularly charismatic and Crawford is wholly engaging.  I do question Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince however.  His performance actually feels a lot like he is attempting to channel William Shatner, especially when it comes to his singing.

I don’t know if that’s a comparison I would make were it not for both men playing James T. Kirk,  but as they have, it’s hard for it not to stick in one’s mind.  Here, Pine is hammy and while it tends to work in the moments that he’s there, it also feels like he’s doing a different, far more comedic, spin on the movie.   It is one thing to be comic relief, but another to have the comedy come from a wholly different place.

Johnny Depp’s Wolf has a similar feel but is around for far less of the movie.  Perhaps if Depp were there longer, Pine’s Prince wouldn’t seem so out of place.

That being said, Pine isn’t why the movie struggles as much as it does.  As I said earlier, it’s filmed with a large number of uncomfortably close shots.  It reminds me very much of some of the issues I had with Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables.”  The filming gets in the way of the performances.  Repeated cuts and repeated close-ups work in certain types of movies, but not in musicals.*

*At some point here I could start talking like the exact sort of film student I didn’t like when I was in school, throwing around a discussion of Eisenstein and montage like it’s nobody’s business.  I will endeavor not to do that, and keep my explanation short.

To me, music tends to flow and you have to be quite careful about where and how you break up phrases by cutting from one shot to the next.  Watching the way “Into the Woods” is cut and the way the camera shots are all-too-often staged, it feels as though the music is given less priority than the actor; that we are meant to marvel more at Streep’s transformation, visually, into the Witch than we are at her singing the role.  As with 2012’s “Les Mis,” when the camera stops and steps back and allows the actors to impress, they do.  That just doesn’t happen enough.

Another drawback of all these close-ups and staging is that there are moments when you feel as though the set and costumes are brilliant but can’t be quite sure as you don’t get as much of a look at them as you’d like.  It is hard to make out just how detailed and intricate a space is when you can’t see it.

It should be noted that I am not, generally speaking, a fan of rapid cutting and extreme close-ups, even in action films.  It is a technique that is regularly overused and rather than impressing causes me to feel removed from the action.  “Into the Woods” certainly does not operate at that pace, but it does seem to function at the musical equivalent of it.

I want to love the filmic version of “Into the Woods” as much as I did the 2002 revival.  I do, but only in fits and spurts.  There is simply too much of the artifice of filmmaking put between the audience and the performances for it to be an unqualified success.

Previously, Marshall directed “Chicago” with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones.  That is a case where every time I see the stage musical I find it mediocre but absolutely love the film Marshall creates from it.  Prior to seeing “Into the Woods,” it had been my hope that Marshall would take a musical I like far better and elevate it further.  As stated, that isn’t the case.

Photo Credit:  Disney

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