Film Review: Into the Woods (★★★)

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IntoTheWoods541861c99b824Slick, lavish, and imaginatively vibrant, Rob Marshall‘s newest musical adaptation “Into the Woods” hits most of the notes as a thoroughly entertaining experience of the holiday season.  Assembling one the year’s finest casts, Marshall brings his ability to bring each actor to their utmost potential, while keeping composer Stephen Sondheim‘s brilliance intact.  In the end however, the real problem with “Woods” is that its narrative structure is slashed like a hairstylist that took too much off the top, or in this case the second act.  The first hour of James Lapine’s adaptation is so wholesomely fulfilling.  When the story takes a sudden, yet awkward shift into “serious” and more adult territory, this Disney produced spectacle struggles to find its footing.  Perhaps, a director’s cut, 30 minutes longer, and more clearly obvious themes would have felt more satisfying.  This doesn’t take away from the marvelous performances that are abound.  Those will surely keep you engaged enough to make it through.

It’s imperative to begin with Chris Pine.  A movie star that hasn’t been afforded the opportunity to stretch his acting legs beyond “Star Trek” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.”  When you look at the definition of having fun in a role, Pine’s face will be planted firmly next to the words.  A career best performance with the show’s best musical number, “Agony.”  Try to look at him the same way after this.  A true standout, and scene stealer.  Go figure by the way, the man has a very impressive set of pipes.

The Queen of the Academy, three-time Oscar-winner Meryl Streep is the best she’s been since “The Devil Wears Prada.”  Seeing Streep operate in these later years, especially stage adaptations like “Doubt,” “Mamma Mia!,” and last year’s “August: Osage County,” have not brought out the greatness that Streep is capable of achieving.  Granted, anything that is “lower-tier Meryl” is probably better than most, but I’ve ached to see her hit another home run.  This is it.  Streep’s work as the Witch is profoundly moving and beautifully orchestrated.  “Stay with Me” and especially “Last Midnight” will reaffirm her place in our cinematic lives.  One of the best performances of the year.

The gorgeous and vivacious Emily Blunt is everything you’ve come to expect from her at this point in her career.  She’s an amazing performer, beautiful singer, and knows how to elevate material, even when it clearly begins to bog her down.  There’s nothing wrong with the way that Blunt interprets the Baker’s Wife.  She’s desperate, eager, and extremely hyperactive to get what she wants.  In the latter part of the script, a controversial choice could have ignited talk and tears however, because there’s clearly chops throughout the narrative, the Baker’s Wife’s role ultimately feels non-fulfilling for the audience.  That doesn’t take away from Blunt’s talents.  She’s simply terrific.

IntoTheWoods53da6aaa7e6adIn what clearly is designed to be the heart and soul of “Into the Woods,” James Corden‘s work as the Baker will propel him into a household name (especially with his upcoming takeover for Craig Ferguson).  He’s funny, tender, and just a joy to watch.  He’s a throwback to John C. Reilly’s Oscar-nominated work in “Chicago.”  Affecting, expressive, and memorable.  In a story full of characters you grew up loving, making terrible life choices, you find yourself rooting for someone to come on the other side alive, intact, and sustained.  For many, Corden will be that character.  He’s the real deal.  I can’t wait to see him in more challenging and daring roles in the future.

“Up in the Air” gave us Anna Kendrick, well at least to the high-brow film community.  One Academy Award nomination later, she has mostly succeeded in her own vehicles like “Pitch Perfect” and the upcoming “The Last 5 Years,” at least based on early word.  Playing Cinderella is a daunting task.  Anyone who has it will have to compete with mental images from the animated classic, and any other live action interpretation you’ve seen throughout your life.  Kendrick has the physical prowess and charisma to do all Cinderella’s assets justice however, there’s something that ultimately feels off.  While her co-star Pine disappears into the role of the Prince with no semblance of his former character interpretations, Kendrick just doesn’t disguise herself enough to warrant a 100% golden star, or in this case a shoe.  For her number “On the Steps of the Palace,” she nearly hits her stride.  Just not exactly what we hoped for.

The rest of the cast has their individual moments.  Johnny Depp‘s interpretation of the Wolf was fun, but anyone who had a problem with his vocal range in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” will have their lickings once again.  I’m glad that I’ve learned who Billy Magnussen is now as a result of his work as Rapunzel’s Prince.  He’s delightful.  Mackenzie Mauzy‘s Rapunzel is an unrealized staple of the musical that could have been far more richer and satisfying than what was ultimately displayed.  Mauzy’s turn is essential.

Christine Baranski‘s work as the wicked Stepmother kicks off the film on the most enormous high.  A delectable presence sprinkled throughout.  Same for the brilliant Tracey Ullman who just needs to be in more movies these days.  The young performers, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood are equal parts impressive and annoying.  The step-sisters, Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard are finely tuned with their wicked counterpart throughout.

Into the Woods” is an energetic, rapturous romp at the movies.  Lovely displayed with stunning production work and costume design, which are both singular standouts of the film year.  Managed, genuine, and appreciated, “Into the Woods” is a must-watch for the season.  An alluring, though flawed work, that stands as an excuse and reason to keep the movie musical alive.  If anything, above all else, you take that with you to the bank.

Into the Woods” opens on Christmas Day.

Check out the latest Oscar Predictions and see where “Into the Woods” ranks!

TRAILER 

“Into the Woods” – “Stay with Me”

  • Luke

    Great review, Clayton!

  • Luke

    Great review, Clayton!

  • I’m nervous about Meryl’s nod. For me, in the last years, she has many undeserved nominations. Hope, this is not one of them

  • I’m nervous about Meryl’s nod. For me, in the last years, she has many undeserved nominations. Hope, this is not one of them

    • David M

      MANY undeserved nominations? To each his own. Try not to be nervous though – on this one she deserves not only a nomination but a win. The only supporting performance that is in the same league is Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer.

    • Robert MacFarlane

      I know that feeling, man. Last year stung the most, considering they snubbed Adele Exarchopolous, Brie Larson, and Julie Delpy in place of Streep’s mugging.

  • Jay

    Well-written review, though I am surprised by the Meryl praise. I’ve heard she’s rather over the top and struggles with lip-syncing in some parts. Do you think she could win?

    • Robert MacFarlane

      That is EXACTLY what I’ve heard. And no, she won’t win. I’d relax about that.

      • David M

        The role is supposed to be over the top. There were no issues with lip synching. Witch’s Rap was done live and is incredible. The woman can sing as well as act. Have either of you actually seen the movie? Don’t go by what you’ve heard. Clayton’s review is well written and accurate. It’s definitely one of the best performances of the year. Robert is probably correct though about her not winning – One Scene Wonder Arquette has it in the bag for a role that should have been campaigned as Lead. Streep’s performance in this film will be remembered years from now.

        • Robert MacFarlane

          “Campaigned as lead”? Are you high? I’m usually the first one to call category fraud, but Arquette is not even a debatable lead. I mean, what, you drinking Sasha Stone’s kool-aid?

          • David M

            The Los Angeles Film Critics voted Arquette best actress not best supporting actress. IFC is campaigning her in supporting knowing she has little chance of winning as lead actress. Have either you or Gerardo actually seen Into The Woods? I doubt it.

            • Robert MacFarlane

              LA Film Critics did that for… some reason. That doesn’t mean she’s actually lead. Category fraud happens all the time, calling her supporting isn’t one of them. Stop this bullshit fake controversy.

              • David M

                You’re laughable and pompous – get a life misfit.

                • Robert MacFarlane

                  Fine, then explain to me why YOU think she’s lead without using articles as proof. Just give me reasoning relating to the film.

  • Andrew Gillespie

    I agree with most parts of this, except I found the pacing to be very off at times, and I thought Huttlestone was seriously miscast. Overall solid adaptation though.