Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into the Woods Review

Ummm... Hmmm... This is... Ummm...

Out of all of the big Christmas releases this year, Into the Woods was by far the most popular and the most interesting movie to discuss. The original Stephen Sondheim musical is a beloved classic by most musical theatre fans and for some reason is regarded as one of the best musicals ever made. Personally, I don't see why, but more power to the people that like it. So when it was announced that the musical would have a movie adaptation, most people began to flip tables in sheer joy of the news. More tables were flipped when Meryl Streep was cast as the witch, and all of the tables were sufficiently placed upside down when the trailers began to pour out. Well, even after watching the movie, I've never been more conflicted about writing a review in the history of this site.

Let me just be perfectly clear when I say this: Into the Woods is not a bad movie. It is not awful and it's actually rather fun at times. I enjoyed sitting through it and there were certain moments that I thought were very well done. That being said, this movie has so many problems that it's not even funny. This is such a flawed movie that I'm surprised that it's getting all of the good reviews that it's getting. Again, this movie isn't bad, but I wouldn't call it good either. Or even above average. Or meh. I don't know what to call this movie, but good is the first thing this movie isn't.

The original musical follows a baker and his wife as they're tasked by a witch to procure four items in order to make her youthful again. These items are Cinderella's slippers, Rapunzel's hair, Little Red Riding Hood's cape, and the cow from Jack and the Beanstalk. They have three days to get the four items, all the while interfering with each of these character's stories, who all just so happen to be in the same forest at the same time. Relationships are established, friendships are forged, and it's a mad cap race to get these three items. All the while, people sing about whatever they see, they feel, or whatever else they want to sing about.

You may consider my bias after I say this, but I'm not a huge fan of the original musical. I think that it's alright, but the musical has a fair amount of problems that make it really hard for me to like it. I think most of the songs sound very similar, but not in a good way. I think that the entire second act of the play is unnecessary and makes the show more dark and sinister for no real reason. I think that magical plot conveniences are rampant in the play. In short, the show is flawed, but the transition from stage to screen actually did help out iron out some of the problems of the show... while creating a whole new set of problems unique to the movie.

I think the best way to describe what the biggest problem the movie has is how faithful it is to the source material. It practically adheres the the original text and plot at all times. There are moments that feel like this movie is just taking the play and doing a one to one transition from one different medium to another. Instead of adjusting several parts of the play for the movie, Into the Woods instead opts to adhere strictly to the play with very little deviation.

I shouldn't have to say this, but taking a stage musical and making it into a movie isn't simple and easy. You can't direct the movie like you would is it was a play. There are tons of shots in this movie that are filled with people pacing around as they sing in one singular location. Songs are isolated from location to location, and when a song is done, the movie quickly cuts to a completely different location, or even cuts to black saying that the scene is over. It has the same problem as the film adaptation of Les Miserables where most of the characters are just pacing around as they sing. There's nothing dynamic about watching people sing while pacing. On stage you can do that, but you can't on film. It looks boring and lazy when you see a character pace from one side of a set to another while the camera follows them.

Case in point, Jack's song "Giants in the Sky". In the song, Jack sings about the adventure he had when he went up the beanstalk to see the giants that lived up there. He describes everything he saw and his interactions with the giants. All the while he was climbing a tree and singing the song to the baker about what he saw. However, the audience never actually got to see what he was talking about. He was singing about all of these wonderous things, but we never got a chance to see them. We were told what he saw, that's all. That's perfectly fine in a stage musical, but as a movie, it just comes across as lazy. It's the simple idea of show, don't tell. Why tell me about all of these magical things when I could see them myself? And before die hard fans of the musical jump out and say "But that means you'd have to cut one of the best songs of the show!", you could still have Jack sing the song with the accompanying visuals being his exploits with the giants instead of him climbing a tree. What would you rather see? A boy singing in a tree about his adventures, or the boy hanging out with giants while he narrates his adventure?

While that's just a personal preference that I would have liked to see, it cannot excuse the fact that there are several plot holes or plot points that go unexplained throughout the movie. In the transition from stage to screen, several key plot points were glanced over in favoring of focusing on the main story. That makes sense, since Into the Woods is a very dense and packed show, so cutting a few plot points make sense. However, you can't keep in plot points that reference scenes that were cut, or even elements that were not present to begin with. Case in point, Rapunzel.

I had to reread the play to remind myself about her character and her interactions with her prince, but nothing about her makes any sense. The prince appears to her blind, she cures it by crying on his eyes. So she has magic powers? Since when? And the half way through the movie she just leaves. Why? We never see her or her prince again in the movie, so that was a waste of time. Oh, and the witch apparently loses her powers. What reason did she lose her powers? Not explained in the movie. Go find out on your own! But then she gets them back (kinda) for her final song "Last Midnight". So... that makes sense?

Not only that, but instead of explaining what the hell is going on in the movie, the plot just keeps on trucking. Several characters disappear throughout the entire movie not because of any significant reason, but just because they're written out. They serve no more purpose, so they're swiftly whisked away, their jobs done. Rapunzel leaves, Jack's mom leaves, the wicked stepsisters leave, the witch leaves, all mostly because they don't really have anything else to do besides leave. In fact, a couple of them actually die offscreen, so we never really get a decent farewell to them. There's nothing worse than having several characters die offscreen that we grew to love and enjoy. Again, that's okay is a musical (not really), but in a movie that's the purest definition of a cop out. It's like coming home from work one day only to have found out your cat died and was already taken away. It's just messed up.

So the structure is weird and as an adaptation the movie is a mess, but how's the cast? Surprisingly enough, very good. I thought that everyone was more or less cast well and there wasn't a truly awful performance. The Baker and the Baker's wife were very good in particular, with Little Red Riding Hood being a surprising joy to watch. Even Johnny Depp wasn't awful in this, instead giving a really weird and coming off as a bit of a pedophile instead of a wolf that wanted to eat here. Easy come easy go I suppose.

And then you have Meryl Streep. I know a bunch of people are calling her brilliant as the witch, but I feel that she's just okay. Yes I said it internet, theatre fans, and movie fans. I think that Meryl Streep was okay in this movie. Just okay. When she sings, she's great. "Last Midnight" was by far the best song in the movie just because of how strong Meryl is as a singer. I'm not going to argue with that. When she's not singing though, I didn't see anything outstanding. When she was the old witch, all she really did was just scream at people in and old cackling voice, coming in ever couple of minutes just to scream at people then leave. It was fine, but when you tell me that Meryl Streep, THE Meryl Streep, is going to be the witch, I expect a lot more than just a screaming old hag. It didn't get much better for me when she became young again, having what was left of her character just fade away. When she was young, all I saw was Meryl Streep with no character, just Meryl Streep being herself, which was, again, disappointing for me. She was just acting how people expect Meryl Streep to act, which is a shame because we all know she can do better than this. She's won several Oscars for a reason. Here, while it isn't a very good Meryl Streep performance, it isn't bad at all, just uneven. Plus it goes to say how good she normally is when her on autopilot is still pretty good.

Everything else was very well done. The set was nice and the relationship between the characters were very strong, but besides all of that, I just felt like this movie was draining to watch. It was a little under two hours, but it felt like an eternity. Hell, even though I think Exodus was a piece of shit, it didn't feel like it was too long. It was three hours long, but it felt much shorter than that. This movie felt like it was going on forever, not helped by the fact that the songs chosen to be in this movie were all orchestrated to sound the same. I can't even tell you the differences between each song because they sounded so similar. "Last Midnight" and "Agony" were the only ones that stuck out to me because of how different they sounded from the rest of the movie. It got to the point where in the last half hour, whenever the characters were about to sing, I was groaning. I was groaning over the fact that we had to grind the movie to a halt just to have the characters explain to us how they feel and reiterate points that we already know. The audience isn't stupid, we don't need everything sung to us to explain it. When you have the Baker's wife singing about her making a bad decision and the consequences that could come from it, it's done in a two to three minute song. We don't need that long to get across the point that she done goofed! Move on already! It's bad when a musical, something that I genuinely care for and love, gets on my nerves and grinds my teeth. That means there's nothing wrong here.

Again, I want to make it clear that this movie is not awful. It's incredibly flawed, but not awful. Maybe it's because I'm very apathetic to the source material. Maybe it's because I've seen much better stage to screen adaptations. Maybe it's because of the cuts from the original play and how strictly it follows the play. Or maybe the movie's just flawed all around. I know a bunch of people that liked this movie, a few people the loved this movie thoroughly, and a couple of people that didn't like the movie. I guess that this is going to be a musical adaptation that, like Les Miserables, will split fans and theatre lovers for years to come. As it is, this is just an uneven and very choppy movie. That's the word I can use to describe Into the Woods; choppy.


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