Monday, 15 June 2015

Into the Woods (2015)

When it comes to this blog I think I'm starting to come across as a bit of a grump when it comes to musicals. I don't really understand why as I'm a not so secret lover of the genre. Whilst writing my postgraduate dissertation I listened to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat soundtrack on repeat. I have been known to portray my feelings through the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber (especially when I'd finished the aforementioned dissertation). However, most modern musicals just don't get me as excited. I see trailers and just get angry. Especially if they star Meryl Streep. Thankfully I have the good sense not to associate with anybody who responded to the release of Into The Woods with any other attitude than “who the fuck cast Meryl Streep in another musical?” Don't get me wrong I love the Streep but, you have to admit, it's a bloody good question. After the travesty that was Mamma Mia it's difficult to see who would have decided casting big names was better than talented singers. 

Into the Woods is a weird fairytale mash-up of the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. These many strands are tied together through the tale of a baker and hid wife who embark on a quest to lift a curse that has left them childless. In order to get their angry neighbourhood witch to reverse her spell, the pair must enter the titular woods and track down four very specific items from each of the four tales.

The problem with cutting and pasting bits of these existing stories together is that each one ultimately loses a lot of the excitement and become a lot more complicated. Taken singly you can accept the crazy decisions that the characters make but torn into bite size pieces it becomes harder to go along with everything. The mixing of the narratives only succeeds in watering them down without adding any fresh perspectives or humour. It's all a bit dull and unnecessary.

And fucking repetitive. The problem with musicals as a whole is the needless desire to tell the audience what is happening over and over again. Almost as soon as the baker has rescued Red Riding Hood from the belly of the wolf, she feels the need to sing about it and provide us with a flashback. Clearly targeted at the stupid or those with non-existent short-terms memories, Into the Woods is a 2+ hour film that probably only has about an hours worth of material in it.

Which considering there has still been something of a narrative cull seems even more ridiculous. The whole plot feels as though it's full of holes and never feels complete. Take for example the relationship between Cinderella and her Prince Charming: in the stage show Prince Charming tires of Cinders and falls for the sleeping Snow White. In the film, their relationship goes from being happily ever after to soul destroying in the blink of an eye. Despite still being pretty fucking dark compared to Disney's big hitting musicals, Into the Woods has traded narrative integrity for being family friendly.

There is just not subtlety at work here, which, if we're honest, is the fucking great thing about stage musicals. They are limited in how they can present their material and so can't distract from the music and the performances. Into the Woods is the opposite of this who steamrollers over everything else with its massive production values. The epic sets, costumes and orchestration make it almost impossible to enjoy the witty and clever work of both Sondheim and writer James Lapine, who also wrote the book for the original production.

Into the Woods is a musical that takes itself too fucking seriously and, considering the general air of the show, is just the most ridiculous decision. I was so bored during the whole film and I say that as someone who's natural reaction to people singing instead of talking is to jump for joy. That's not to say that the cast don't try their hardest and obviously many of them try too hard. Into the Woods is full to bursting with huge names to the extent that great actors like Simon Russell Beale are mere afterthoughts. With a mix of Hollywood A-listers, musical theatre brats and classical actors, it's exhausting.

Meryl Streep, despite the fact that I'll never warm to her as a singer, is fabulous as the desperate witch and Anna Kendrick adds some real legitimacy to proceedings as Cinderella. Emily Blunt and James Corden make a good duo as the Baker and his wife but get sort of lost in the confusion and musical numbers. Most memorable is Chris Pine as the sleazy but charming Prince who wins Cinders' heart. Pine, who will now forever be Captain Kirk 2.0, channels his best William Shatner for his performance. It's a role that is a fantastic parody but never really finds its feet on the big screen.

I'm not entirely sure who Into the Woods was made for. It doesn't quite work for the lovers of Frozen or the faithful Sondheim audience. It's simultaneously dumbed-down and over-complicated. The watered down script is still too edgy for children but not dark enough for an older audience. Into the Woods is all pomp and no circumstance. Getting too carried away in the spectacle that it didn't really think about the content that they were trying to introduce people to. The whole thing just left me cold.  

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