Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of...oops, wrong musical. Still, the sentiment applies to Rob Marshall's latest Broadway adaptation "Into the Woods". After catching the film this week, all I could think about was all that glorious singing.
I must confess, it doesn't take much for me to like a musical film. Just give me some nice songs and lovely voices and I'm halfway there. That's exactly what Marshall does with this splendid cast and the wonderful songs that make up Stephen Sondheim's riff on classic fairy tales. The story combines the plots of characters we all know - Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella - as a baker and his wife approach them for magical items to break a family curse. All the characters have problems of their own however, as their journeys into the woods reveal that the world is more dangerous and complicated than they expected. As they attempt to fulfill their hopes and dreams, they come to realize the myth of their individual "fairy tales".
Of course, this is all set to music with zest and vigour. Tony Award winner Anna Kendrick clearly brings the most musical theater experience, but you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that the rest of the primary cast (Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Meryl Streep, James Corden) are just as able to deliver. Even Johnny Depp is serviceable as the ridiculously outfitted "Wolf". They all possess such beautiful voices, but even more crucial is their skilled sing-acting. For most, Streep is the standout in the marquee role as The Witch, but it's Chris Pine who really steals the show as the irresistibly debonair playboy that is Cinderella's Prince. It's his best performance to date.
Not everything is as pitch perfect as the music and the performances however. The fundamental issue in the transfer of this material from stage to screen is the loss of intimacy. I had the pleasure of watching a live stage performance of this musical and it's one that struck me as a quaint but affecting concept. The dramatic turn of events following the intermission is an emotional gutpunch, a feeling I didn't get from this version (or even from a recorded version of the show). On film unfortunately, there's less attachment to the characters and the story ends up feeling a bit trivial.
These intimacy issues are somewhat inevitable in producing a big screen fairy tale though. You can't make this story without expanding the scale of it with those big giants and flashy special effects. For what it's worth, I did appreciate cinematographer Dion Beebe's visual interpretation of the woods. What's most important however, is that it does retain its best attributes - the songs and the story's poignant messages about the importance of family, community and kindness. "Into the Woods" is classic entertainment, a true visual and aural treat.
With regards to Oscars, the prospects on this one aren't as rosy initially anticipated. Likely nods include Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. If the Academy is feeling generous, the film may also figure into Best Cinematography and Best Picture. Regardless of how this all plays out, the film is certainly no failure (as some may have you think).