Blunt and Streep shine in this stunning fairy taleMovie Review Wednesday, December 24th, 2014
This Christmas, you have a rather odd choice of movies to see after you’ve opened your presents and gorged on goose (if you’re into goose gorging). Oddly, most of them are about as Christmasy as the Easter Bunny. Unbroken is about a British soldier who endures years of torture as a prisoner of war. Big Eyes is about a woman whose husband saw her talent as a painter and told everyone it was his. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is about a soldier who killed more people – legally – than any other in American history. The Gambler is about a compulsive one. And The Imitation Game is about a World War II hero who was chemically castrated for being gay and then killed himself. Joy to the world! But wait, there’s another movie, one about fairy tales and love and children and defeating evil! Into the Woods. That sounds wholesome.
It’s not. I mean, it is. It only alludes to violence and sex. It ends happily. Sorta. It’s based on the most famous of fairy tales, so the morality is black and white. Actually, no. It’s all really gray. And that’s the point.
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods won all of the Tonys in 1988 that Phantom of the Opera did not: book of a musical, and music and lyrics. It’s beloved in a way that few musicals are because it is so often produced by regional and school theaters, partly because it’s fun, funny, beautiful and sneakily deep, and partly because it’s a great ensemble piece, so there are a lot of roles. And I can’t count the number of gay men I’ve met who claim to have played the Baker. This sturdy film version will only make the show more popular.
The plot is actually absurdly complex, so I’ll just provide the basics. In fairy tale times (something like the Middle Ages), a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) desperately are trying to have a child. It turns out the Baker was cursed to sterility by his neighbor the Witch (Meryl Streep) because his father pissed her off. In order for her to reverse the course, the Baker and his Wife need to find a red cloak (from Red Riding Hood, played by Lilla Crawford), a cow as white as snow (from Jack, of the beanstalk fame, played by Daniel Huttlestone), a golden slipper (from Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick), and hair as yellow as corn (from Rapunzel, played by Mackenzie Mauzy). They set off into the woods to find these items, and they find the items and the people who have them, all of whom are on their own quests for fulfillment. And they seem to find it. But a minute after you think they’re all going to live happily ever after, they don’t.
Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago to its Best Picture Oscar, does a lovely job with the swirling, twirling story, the lush art direction and the fantastic cast. Blunt and Streep are particularly great, with Blunt playing the show’s most fully realized character with bright charm and Streep chewing scenery with a great, snide cackle. Traci Ullman, as Jack’s mother, was surprising casting, and I wish she’d had a bigger role. Chris Pine, as Cinderella’s arrogant Prince Charming, is hilariously narcissistic.
The film differs from the stage show in a few odd and unnecessary ways, and what is the entire second act of the show takes up 30 minutes in the movie. It’s rushed and occasionally confusing, but when it’s time to get to the moral and emotional climax, the movie succeeds. This success is one of the more beautiful and bittersweet moments Sondheim and Lapine created. It’s not quite Christmasy, but it’s certainly more inspiring than a Clint Eastwood film about a professional killer.
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