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Sunday, January 11, 2015

A Moment In the Woods

"Oh, if life were made of moments, even now and then a bad one...
But if life were only moments, then you'd never know you had one."
               The Baker's Wife (Stephen Sondheim lyrics)

I've been waiting to see "Into the Woods" for months. I first saw the previews this summer and was a bit appalled at how Disney was selling it. You'd never know it was a musical. With a minute's worth of special effects and quick clips of people in fairy-tale dress, you'd think it was a Harry Potter sequel. I had terrible thoughts that when people discovered it was one of Stephen Sondheim's more complex moral allegories -- and a musical on top of that -- they'd stay away in droves.


But Meryl Streep is a trump card. And, because not everyone can sing Sondheim well, the cast was built with capable voices and personalities who could deliver the lyrics clearly so every word was understood. The film has been doing good business, which makes me glad. I may even go see it again.

The Plot 

"Into the Woods" takes the familiar fairy tale characters of the Brothers Grimm, like Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and others. He adds in the story of a witch with a curse placed on her head and a childless baker and his wife, wraps the story with intriguing and sometimes thought-provoking songs and weaves it all into a story that deals with searching for your dreams.

The first half (or act) of the film involves that quest, following various characters into the woods where their lives intersect. Life in the woods is dangerous. There are wolves who will devour you (consider the danger in this case to be your internet stalker or your neighborhood sex offender in modern terms.) In the film he is played with squirmingly delicious malevolence by Johnny Depp. You find things you need to realize those dreams. And, you may lose them -- either through poor decisions or perhaps just because fate steps in. You must be aware on your walk through the woods, keep your eyes open.

In the woods the Baker and his wife learn of witches with spells (it was a witch and spell that sent them there in the first place), princesses who long to be released from their tower prison and another who wants only to be free of her stepmother and go to the festival to meet the prince.

And yes, there can be happy endings. 

But what happens when you get what you want? Every single one of us knows that life isn't so clear cut, so clean and neat. We have the struggle. We may get our prince or that long-awaited child. Life is good. But is it perfect? Does it stay that way?

Happily Ever After?

If one wants to dig deeply, there are plenty of elements of "Into the Woods" that translate to real life. Think of the kids in Joplin, celebrating prom and moments after, a tornado disrupts their world, leaving families without homes, a job and perhaps their loved ones. Consider those affected by any disaster -- or even a terror attack as the one we saw last week in Paris. Even if the circumstances aren't collectively huge, what about the family who must face the unexpected loss of a family member, a job, a home -- or more than one thing at a time. Life is fine -- and then it crashes around us.

"There are Giants in the Sky," Sondheim reminds us. "Big, tall, terrible giants in the sky." And as quickly as our lives can come together, they can fall apart. And then what? How do we move forward when what we love or what we worked so hard to have is lost? Is it the surviving that makes us strong? Or is it the pulling ourselves back together and preparing to face another day. Can we do it alone or will we better survive if we can all help one another move forward?

Or, as the lyrics for "No One is Alone" remind us, "Someone is on your side, someone else is not. While we're seeing our side, maybe we forgot, they are not alone. No one is alone." Those words offer multiple meanings, serving to reinforce the idea that we can work together in times of adversity. They also offer a reminder of tolerance for other beliefs -- and the equally powerful reminder that those with beliefs different from ours have others on their side.

If all that sounds a little grim, remember -- this is a movie musical based on a fairy tale and produced by Disney. The movie's more profound moments are blended easily with comedy and plenty of music. Consider the princely brothers longing for their unattainable women (Cinderella and Rapunzel) and the "Agony" they feel as they try to one-up each other in the misery department. Trust me -- there is nothing grim about this moment! (No pun intended!)


The casting is solid. In addition to Streep's perfectly over-the-top performance and Depp's evil wolf, Emily Blunt (nominated as Best Actress in the Golden Globes) and James Cordon (soon to be the new Late Night host) hold the multiple stories together as the Baker and his Wife. Chris Pine is the handsome prince, raised to be charming -- not sincere. Rounding out the principals are Lilla Crawford (a gluttonous Red Riding Hood), Anna Kendrick and Christine Baranski (Cinderella and her stepmother) and Tracy Ullman as Jack's mother. Daniel Huddleston is a suitably feisty "Jack."

A note on special effects -- Rick and I had a discussion on this one. We've both seen the play. He found the effects of the movie distracting and too much, drawing focus away from Sondheim's lyrics and James Lupine's screenplay (quite faithful to the play with a few cuts and minor changes). He has a point -- there is a lot to see. But I compare special effects to space movies or films like "Inception" and from where I stood, not a problem.

Taking kids? Not the little ones, I think. They won't get it and they might be scared. If you can get your tween and older kids there, do. There is much to learn. And, as Streep reminds us, "Careful the things you say, children will listen; careful the things you do. Children will see and learn." (I've heard good reports from families going with their 10-15 year-old kids and the kids enjoying it.)

For more about the conversion of the play to film, wikipedia offers an well-cited article, including the point that all cuts and changes were approved by Sondheim and music and lyrics were written to accommodate the changes.

Posters from the film copyright Disney.

20 comments:

Karen S. said...

Bravo on your review of this, I too was on the edge of my seat waiting for it to arrive. I wanted to take my 5 year old grand-daughter but thought better of it, and didn't, only to learn she went yesterday with a teenage babysitter! Oh well. I believe it to be a magical adventure, gripping and telling, and yes we must pay attention. I have also heard many ills regarding it, but everyone has their own views. One that totally surprised me was from a radio station and she complained that it was the ending that really ruined it for her, saying they should have ended it sooner and not played it out so much over and over at the end????

Jenny Woolf said...

We won't be getting to see that for a while here. We always get a later release for movie features than the US (or, at least for US movies). I didn't read the plot in case it spoiled it :)

Friko said...

True fairy tales are grim, that’s the nature of the beast. It’s only Hollywood who has turned the fairy tale into a kitschy, all’s-well-that-ends-well romantic story.

Sondheim is never kitschy. From what you say here Disney haven’t managed to spoil his work.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Oh, I need to see this, I really do, because Meryl Streep is one of the best actresses out there!

Oh Jeanie, your comment, what kindness my friend. I will continue to visit you, just simply not writing blog posts. I will however, hover over blogland to visit. BE WELL, ENJOY! Anita

Lily Lau said...

What a fantastic review you did here! You made me curious about the movie :)

Laura Quaglia (Fun With This and That) said...

You make me want to see this. Streep is always good
Thank You for stopping byHope you come by again
Laura

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

What a great review! You make me want to see it! I am so out of the loop in regards to what is in theaters and what the movies are about. I looked at the list of movies up for a Golden Globe and haven't seen any of them! Yikes! Sounds like this is one I need to make time to see!

Tina Fariss Barbour said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I knew nothing about the plot or play except it had something to do with fairy tales. It sounds like it's much more complex and interesting than that!

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

Love this thoughtful, incisive review, Jeanie! I saw "Into the Woods" on Broadway some years ago, during its first run and was enthralled. Of course, I'm a big Sondheim fan, too. I was afraid that the movie version would change too much....but you've convinced me: I'm going to see it this week for sure!
Thanks, Jeanie!

Esme said...

Interesting-I could not figure out what the movie was about. I may have to go see this one.

Tracy said...


WONDERFUL review, Jeanie! Sondheim can be a challenge for sure--for those on stage, as well as the audience! ;o) I had some misgivings when I first read about this, mostly due to Disney... LOL! And yes, this does seem a grown up film! In that way then, kudos to Disney for offering something more for the grown up! Oh, we went to see Mr. Turner film at the weekend--we really enjoyed it! Well, enjoy is probably the wrong word, as the story is very sad all in all! It was sooo well done! Wonderful period piece in great English tradition, and really portrayed the the rough, gritty life and times of the rather eccentric turner very well. Timothy Spall did fanTastic turn as Turner! It was a long film too--2 2/1 hrs--but it went so quickly for such a relatively low-key film. It may have been sort of low-key at glace, but a LOT of emotional under-current the whole time. Sooo well done! You will enjoy too, i think! :o) Happy Week ((HUGS))

Jeanne said...

Good morning Jeanie, I am just now getting back to blogging again in the New Year. I have been blogging for several years and I'm afraid I have gone a bit stale. I really love it and meeting you is a pleasure. I scrolled down to your recent posts and found them to be so interesting.

Your review of "In the Woods" might have changed my mind to go see it after all. Our son and his wife walked out of the movie and gave us some negative feelings. Now I am intrigued once again. Streep is an awesome actress and a big draw for us. Thank you for a great review.

Happy New Year.
Jeanne

Arti said...

I've not seen this one, nor am I motivated to. But your review sure is interesting, and informative, a Harry Potter sequel is the impression I got from the trailer and poster. And, usually am not too enthused about Disney movies, except in past years when bringing my son to the movies... still impressed by Beauty and the Beast the musical. Saw it with my then 4 yr. old son on Broadway.

Joanne Huffman said...

Of course I loved the movie. And, I enjoyed your review. I remember when it first came out, I was taken by surprise at the dramatic twists of the endings. It is one of my favorite Sondheim musicals and I thought the movie was well done.

susieq512.com said...

Outstanding review, Jeanie! Mine was pretty ham-fisted compared to yours. Obviously you have known and loved it for a long time. I'm so glad that Disney did not do Sondheim wrong. I think you have convinced a few people to see the movie. Perhaps Disney should hire you to make their trailers. :)

The Quintessential Magpie said...

Thanks so much for the review, Jeanie! Loved reading it.

I would see the movie for no other reason than Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp are starring. Huge fan of both actors. But your review also was helpful in making me decide. Thanks! :-)

On a side note, my husband is related to the Brothers Grimm, and we both enjoy their fairytales and others. When I was a wee bitty, my mother would read fairytales to me before I could read (but I could memorize!), and she would skip parts when she was tired or thought I was nodding off. Suddenly, I would bolt wide awake and ask her to repeat it because she left out the part about so and so. LOL She used to laugh years later and say that is what comes of having a child with a photographic memory (inherited from my dad). Maybe not quite so photographic any longer, but I still enjoy a good fairytale. ;-)

xo

Sheila

Marilyn said...

Excellent review.

Retired English Teacher said...

Your review is stunning. I will have to see the film. Thanks for sharing all of your insights, perceptions, and observations.

Maggie said...

So enjoyed your informative and insightful review, Jeanie. I hadn't heard of this musical/film before but now I'm really hoping that I'll get to see it when we visit the US in March especially as Emily Blunt and James Corden are in it, two of the UK's best young actors in my opinion.

Bella Rum said...

I've heard it's excellent and the casting is perfect. What a great review, Jeanie. Thanks.

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