Thursday, December 25, 2014

‘INTO THE WOODS’ GREAT BUT IS IT FOR EVERYONE?

By Dominique Paul Noth

Meryl Streep as the Witch with Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel
in "Into the Woods."
Movie audiences are going to have to look hard on Christmas Day. Even the most excellent choice I have seen so far, “Into the Woods,” has to be thought about, because being emotionally and intellectually explorative in music is not everyone’s idea of a family night at the movies. 

Options? Both “Selma” about a crucial civil rights era, and “American Sniper,” the tribulations of a battlefield marksman, have to wait for Milwaukee January despite coastal showings in time for awards.  Right now there are such picks as “Unbroken,” an Olympic track star of the 1930s surviving life as a Japanese POW in World War II; “The Imitation Game,” about a mathematical genius later reviled for being a homosexual who cracked the Enigma code to win World War II; “Big Eyes,” Tim Burton’s comedy about an audacious art fraud (all to be reviewed later), and my current choice.

Obviously, hopes there might be a holiday connection rather than commercial crassness in what films are pouring into general release have totally vanished. That was confirmed  when Sony and giant theater chains capitulated to an outlandish North Korean threat and  pulled a satire few had previously thought of even seeing --  “The Interview,” a “Freaks and Geeks” style comedy about assassinating Kim Jong-un. And while a few hundred independent theaters are moving to save Sony’s bacon after criticism from the president -- and, probably more important, from angry celebrity power names the company needs  to do new business with -- the incident certainly confirmed that commercialism is rampant in this supposed season of religious thought and gift giving.

There is hardly a journey to Bethlehem or an appeal to kiddies fare in the outpouring, more a movie industry occasion to capitalize on families having vacation time to attend films or timing releases to upset the end of the year awards sweepstakes. 

And thus, because of the Disney label and the famous reputation of musical theater fare set in fairy-tale land, you might well think this is the one to pack the entire family off to. Well, it depends on how well you know your family and how willing you are to be challenged about your escapist tendencies. 

“Into the Woods” challenges in ways many in the audience aren’t accustomed to. While it  blends fairy-tale mosaic and momentous music and was a hit 27 years ago on Broadway –  it has played around the globe and  on PBS --  it is best known for a junior version emphasizing the merrier first act of its Grimm roots (as in Grimm Brothers).

As such it has become a staple of schools, colleges and recitals everywhere.  In one of the movie’s many ideal casting coups, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother recalled in interviews a middle school production years ago with her own son as Jack and a papier-mâché cow that she thought was just great.  That’s an experience many parents will identify with.

Here it is impeccably cast and stunningly performed, but it is also  a faithful and fully adult musical wonderfully translated to the screen as hardly something your six-year-old will last through.  

This “Into the Woods” – far from the middle school land of papier-mâché – does employ the full-bore technical crafts of Disney Studios, surpassing stage concepts to create a magical kingdom of swirling spells and impenetrable forests and castles. But director Rob Marshall, a stage and film veteran, has also resisted most of the tendencies to succumb to the Disney formulaic green screen. He pointedly enhances the original unsettling intent of composer Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine – entertain with depth.

They favor human behavior however fantastical the premise or settings. So the film unleashes a dark side of fairyland that goes far harder than most of what Disney traditionally packages.

I suspect this version has created a peculiar marketing dilemma.  Disney has been playing with the fairytale for years but mainly with sly humor and topical joking – not with these touches. Nor is this really a musical  where you enter already humming the tunes, a la “Frozen” or even ”South Pacific.” While Sondheim has changed the expectations in major musical theater, it is something of an acquired taste to recognize that movie musicals need not be of the old-fashioned Doris Day tea-for-two variety. Here the music advances characters and meanings, the performers sing and act simultaneously and marvelously. Distraction is constant and attractive – and yet the door has been opened to demand mental agility. 

 Of course there is some aural as well as visual cinematic heightening, mixing prerecording with live singing. But this is a cast that can do it all ways, onstage, onscreen and probably in the bathtub, and without a single name familiar to Disney faithful. That creates a lingering joy in every sequence but a thoughtful exploration of hidden dangers in the woods. 

Purists may be bothered that two stage numbers have been cut as has a reprise of a wonderful song, “Agony,” or that Sondheim wrote two new pieces the movie rejected and  some characters and sideblows have been eliminated or truncated.

But make no mistake. This is not the junior version – mainly the first act romp in the woods seeking to solve a riddle and achieve the various happy endings That first act is a concoction of delightful inventiveness with subtler hints at what can come, sly comments on parenting and on our childish visions of attractive princes and maidens, all brisk in the dash for solving the central riddle. The interactive recitative and subtly haunting melodic themes employ great humor and impish comments and only subtler warnings as the nasty neighborhood Witch, the Beanstalk Jack, the Baker and his Wife, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood run violently into each other to achieve their respective happy endings.

But after an hour life crashes in and turns endings upside down.  The lyrics reveal ominous sides. The comically frightening interplay with the witch has ramifications. Hidden messages emerge about barrenness and child rearing as do hints of infidelity among the good characters. Comfort in our ideas of heroism and our cleverness in grasping the jests about romance backfire as the townspeople turn accusatorily upon each other.  
Disney in its classic animations often brought children to attention with the killing or loss of a mother (“Bambi,” “Dumbo”) but here there are sudden surprise losses of figures we have developed affection for, and warnings of brutal self-interest among so-called good and evil that force us to wonder how we the audience can ever find a way back to “once upon a time.”

So praise Disney for being willing in a 125 minute film, down from three hours onstage, to communicate   the weight of a serious musical that has long had this built-in schizophrenia for the public: Charm and visual imagination in creating a wondrous woods – very popular -- and then getting the hell away from the woods when consequences turn ugly – definitely not as easy to swallow.

Maybe a precocious 10 year old will stick with this past the first hour and embrace the second where the pace is less brisk and the actors and story fully embrace the extended suggestions in the lyrics and plot manipulations. Not to say “Into the “Woods” isn’t a delight for the eyes and ears, but it shapes musical memories for progressive purposes. The eyes and ears work harder as the story moves on. Many moviegoers are not accustomed to this shift.  If theater audiences had trouble adapting, to the point of popularizing a junior version, the same is likely for a film heavily advertising the Disney brand.

I can quibble here and there with what Marshall has done. I certainly did with his popular 2002 “Chicago.” Part of me wonders if the film director could have better  anticipated how to handle the shift to the serious where the singing actors have to work harder to convey the dramatic dimensions. The actors could only forecast so much (and they do that most capably, as you will perceive on multiple viewings).

Overriding all quibbles are Marshall’s fidelity to the Sondheim-Lapine intent and the brilliance of the casting.

Ullman is a seriously believable and desperate mother to Jack, who is played by young phenom Daniel Huttlestone (previously seen in “Les Miserable”).  Little Red’s petulance and self-absorbed childlike qualities are acted and sung like it was all perfectly normal, as opposed to vocally difficult, by Lilla Crawford. 

There are more delicious turns: Christine Baranski as the evil stepmother, Mackenzie Mauzy as a Rapunzel who must be magnetic in brief moments, and Chris Pines moving from preening fancy in every girl’s eye as the prince to a scary echo of Johnny Depp’s Wolf (a capable five minute cameo that earns top billing). 

To astute observers and listeners, Emily Blunt is providing some intriguing culpability to the Baker’s lovable wife desperate for a child while  James Corden is  the most likeable and convincing Baker in memory. Anna Kendrick, while known for her perfect pitch singing, also provides quicksilver comedic pathos as the ambivalent Cinderella.

But if there is a top of this remarkable pile of actors and singers, there stands Meryl Streep, who rivets even beyond the expectations of her reputation, hardly needing wind, animation and cosmetic effects to spin us from cutting words to spiteful rejected parent to demon troublemaker.  The actress is a whirlwind of her own.

This is a most intriguing movie musical for the fully engaged, but it is not a low-hanging sugar plum artificially sweetened to fit the season’s commercial fashion. These are woods to fall into and wander with full attention. The film-makers have jumped at the opportunity. Now we have to see if audiences join them.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews at urbanmilwaukee.com.