Friday, January 23, 2015

Into the Woods

In most musicals music matters more than story.  Such is the case with Into the Woods (2014; dir. Rob Marshall), where Stephen Sondheim’s songs are mature, thoughtful, deeply emotional and philosophical commentaries on the differences between romantic ideals and realities, fantasies and disillusion.  Most films based on musical plays, at least the films that I’ve seen, don’t work very well.  Stage plays are designed and conceived for stages, and transforming them into films often doesn’t succeed.  Into the Woods largely does work.  The director doesn’t hide the stage origins of the film, which largely takes place on sets that preserve the artifice of staged productions.  The one time in the film when I felt that this approach faltered was with the appearance of a giant.
Into the Woods interweaves a series of familiar childhood fairy tales.  They become the pretext for a series of excellent Sondheim songs that are entertaining and fun.  The second half of the film replaces romantic fantasy with reality.  A wife becomes bored with her husband, a formerly charming prince turns out to be a deceiver, a main character accidentally dies, and everyone makes a series of choices—individually they seem minor moments of deceit—that lead to disaster.  The songs in the film’s second half are about what it’s like to live in a world turned to dross, where dreams that once came true have vanished into nothing. 

The best actor in the film, not surprisingly, is Meryl Steep, as a witch.  We can joke about how often she’s been nominated for best actress, but if she’s nominated this time, it will be deservingly.  Also excellent in the film is Anna Kendrick, as Cinderella.

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