Combustible Celluloid
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With: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy, Daniel Huttlestone, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosbie, Joanna Riding, Frances de la Tour, Richard Glover, Simon Russell Beale
Written by: James Lapine, based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine
Directed by: Rob Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Running Time: 124
Date: 12/25/2014

Into the Woods (2014)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Not Another Bean Movie

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Movie critics are supposed to be objective, but today I will confess a secret: I generally dislike movies that are based on big Broadway musicals. I like seeing musicals on stage, and I like movie musicals, especially those by Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli and starring Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly and their cohorts. These were musicals created for the camera. They were created for the intimate experience of cinema. They moved with a kind of grace and beauty; they had subtlety and poetry. They could make you happy. Traditionally, movies based on Broadway musicals are the opposite. I call them "bulldozer musicals." The emphasis is on sheer, overwhelming size, color, and spectacle. The music and dancing blasts from the screen like an assault. The plot and acting are frantic and oversized.

But even worse, these musicals are almost always released at the end of the year as if a ripe offering for awards season. They run on well past the two hour mark as if to announce their importance. An American in Paris (1951) was a great film that won Best Picture, and so it followed that more and more musicals were submitted for Oscar consideration, and it makes sense that they grew bigger and more important, in an attempt to attract more attention and earn more glory. Movies like Gigi (1958, surely Minnelli's most disappointing movie), West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965) began winning Best Picture.

The trend continues today with Oscar winners and hopefuls like Moulin Rouge! (2001), Chicago (2002), The Phantom of the Opera (2004), The Producers (2005), Rent (2005), Dreamgirls (2006), Hairspray (2007), Sweeney Todd (2007), Mamma Mia! (2008), Nine (2009), Rock of Ages (2012), and Les Misérables (2012). Most of those were awful, but they went unquestioned and were seriously considered because of their size and Broadway pedigree. (I'm generally talking about live-action movies, by the way, not charming animated musicals like Beauty and the Beast.)

What's strange is that the musical's second cousin, the comedy, never gets such regular Oscar consideration. So there's something strange afoot here, and I've always bristled at the artificial, inflated importance of these bulldozer musicals. Though goodness knows I try. I have gamely sat through everything on that aforementioned list, just as I sat through the new Into the Woods. I love Emily Blunt. Meryl Streep is one of the great actresses. Anna Kendrick is charming. Johnny Depp is fun. And even my darling Lucy Punch is here in a goofy supporting role. But this is a bad movie.

Based on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's musical play of 1987, and directed by Rob Marshall, Into the Woods is a mashup of fairy tales. A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Blunt, who is delightful, in spite of everything) wish to have a baby but can't. A witch (Streep) informs them that they have a spell on their house because of the actions of the baker's father (he stole some magic beans from the witch's garden). The spell can be broken if the baker and his wife can gather four items: a red cloak (like Little Red Riding Hood's), a golden slipper (like Cinderella's), a lock of yellow hair (like Rapunzel's), and a white cow (like the one Jack takes to the market to sell).

This section is told with the usual bombast. The children who play Little Red Riding Hood and Jack are obnoxious, seeming for all the world like spoiled Hollywood brats, yelling out their lines as if demanding a toy or candy. The stories are given uneven balance. Rapunzel is totally forgettable, although the movie tries for a while to protect the "secret" that she's really the baker's sister, whom the witch kidnapped as a baby and raised as her own. Cinderella (Kendrick) is slightly cuter, though she's forced to do the "running from the palace just before midnight" gimmick three times, totally befuddling her prince (Chris Pine).

Here's another thing that bugged me. Pine plays Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies, and of all the cast members in those movies, he's the only one that doesn't at least resemble or channel the earlier characters. His Kirk is absolutely nothing like William Shatner's Kirk. Frustratingly, it's here, in Into the Woods, that he finally unleashes his inner Shatner. It's fun, but for me it's too little, too late.

But perhaps the most irritating thing of all is that Into the Woods ends -- ends! -- at a nice point 90 minutes or so in, but then it just keeps going. One of the magic beans was accidentally dropped and forgotten and a giant comes to rampage the countryside. Just what a musical needs: a rampaging giant (which, incidentally, is hardly even shown). I'm sure that my wonderful readers are all thinking the same thing right now: "But that's in the play!" I did not know the play at all, but there has to be a way to direct this kind of twist and make it interesting, or funny, or clever, rather than irritating. With the blunt, blocky way this movie moves, it simply trips over a little trick like that one.

As I write, the movie has three Golden Globe nominations, for Best Musical or Comedy (leaving out many other deserving comedies), and for Streep and Blunt. It is doing its job. Additionally, I'm sure a handful of movie fans will enjoy it, temporarily, and then after the awards hype dies down will think back and wonder: "What was it I liked about that? Not sure what I was thinking. The play was better."

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