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Into The Woods Essay

“Be careful what you wish for” warn the ads for “Into the Woods” — an apt summary of the movie’s theme, and also the mindset of many a Stephen Sondheim fan ever since it was announced that the composer’s popular 1987 Broadway musical was being turned into a film. But such fears are swiftly allayed by director Rob Marshall, who, um, marshals Sondheim’s cavalcade of fairy-tale all-stars on to the screen in a faithful, never particularly inspired, but supremely respectable version — one that outclasses Marshall’s prior “Chicago” and “Nine,” to say nothing of this season’s two-ton musical monstrosity, “Annie.” Strong reviews and family appeal should earn Disney much more than a bunch of magic beans at the holiday box office, with a long shelf life to follow.

It certainly took Hollywood long enough  to see the forest for the trees where “Into the Woods” was concerned. A film version was first bandied about in the mid-’90s at Sony (with Goldie Hawn, Cher and Steve Martin among the potential cast), then put into development deep-freeze for the next two decades. During that time, “Woods” was revived twice on the New York stage (including director Timothy Sheader’s brilliant open-air production in Central Park in 2012) and could be felt as an influence on the “Shrek” movies and (especially) Disney’s “Enchanted.” But the announcement that Disney was finally making “Woods” still brought with it no shortage of anxieties (some fueled by a misquoted Sondheim interview): namely, that the Mouse House would sand down the less family-friendly elements of the show, including its lascivious pederast wolf, an episode of marital infidelity, and a second-act body count to rival Sondheim’s own “Sweeney Todd.”

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For all those reasons and more, the chief virtue of this “Into the Woods” is a feeling of relief. Marshall hasn’t made one of the great movie musicals here, but he hasn’t bungled it, either — far from it. Aficionados who know the show by heart will fully recognize what they see here (and actually be able to see it, after the frantic, seizure-inducing editing of “Chicago” and “Nine”), while new audiences will more than get the gist, a touch condensed and Disneyfied perhaps, but to little overall detriment. If so much as one tween viewer adds Sondheim to his or her iPod playlist alongside the likes of “Let it Go,” all will have been worthwhile.

Taking greater inspiration from “The Uses of Enchantment” author Bruno Bettelheim than from Uncle Walt, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who also earns a screenplay credit here) pluck a dozen or so characters from the iconic fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, add in a few of their own invention, and set them on a tragicomic collision course in which “happily ever after” comes with a litany of fine-print conditions.

The lineup includes a humble baker (the very appealing James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), whose bake shop is frequented by a bratty, shoplifting Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and who live next door to a haggard old witch (Meryl Streep) with many axes to grind. Long ago, the witch abducted the baker’s infant sister, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and cursed the baker himself with sterile genes  punishment for the sins of his estranged father (who stole magic beans from the witch’s garden, once upon a time). But the curse can be reversed, the witch announces, provided the baker and his wife procure the necessary ingredients in the span of 72 hours: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

It is that quest which leads the childless couple into said woods, and into contact with all manner of fellow travelers running to or away from something: the farm boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), reluctantly off to market to sell his beloved but milk-dry cow; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), giving chase to a confounded Prince Charming (Chris Pine); and Little Red herself, weighing mother’s advice about strangers against the dandyish charms of a certain Mr. Wolf (a lip-smacking Johnny Depp, in slanted fedora and a kind of hirsute smoking jacket). For Sondheim and Lapine, these woods are as much a psychological space as a physical one — an existential crucible where innocence is lost, wisdom gained and the difficulty felt of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, be they golden or giant-sized. Freed from the literal belly of the beast, Red Riding Hood sings that her lupine adventure made her feel scared, yes, but also excited, before concluding, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?/And a little bit not.” Meanwhile, after her own illicit wooded liaison, the baker’s wife wonders, “Is it always ‘or?’/Is it never ‘and?’” — one of those deceptively simple Sondheim lyrics that feels like a definitive expression of life’s unending compromise.

Marshall, who’s never seemed to know quite what to do with a movie camera and an editing machine, is helped considerably here by the fact that “Woods” (unlike his previous musical films) has no major dances to flash-cut into incoherence. And where both “Chicago” and “Nine” labored to present their musical numbers as fantasy sequences, lest multiplex-goers be alarmed by the sight of actors suddenly bursting into song, “Woods” harbors no such concerns, embracing its theatricality down to the smallest details of costume and set design. (“The trees are just wood,” Sondheim’s characters sing, but the ones in Marshall’s film, care of production designer Dennis Gassner, look closer to fiberglass.) We’re a long — and probably wise — way here from the bigger-budget version of the film originally proposed, complete with elaborate creature effects from the Jim Henson workshop. The movie doesn’t need the extra razzle-dazzle because the real magic is there in Sondheim’s music, which Marshall allows to come through mostly unimpeded (save for a few deleted reprises) in Jonathan Tunick’s marvelous original orchestrations, conducted by longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani.

Both men also worked on Tim Burton’s 2007 film version of “Sweeney Todd” (starring Depp as the eponymous demon barber), a stylistically bolder and more accomplished film than “Into the Woods.” If comparisons must be made, however, then “Woods” is the better sung of the two, by a generally superb cast who catch the tricky tonal shifts from cheeky satire to pathos and back again. Decked out with a long gray mane and a face of Grand Canyon crags, Streep brings a most amusing petulance to the witch (whom Bernadette Peters played as more of a cloying Jewish mother in the original Broadway production). Pine makes for a hilariously preening, clueless Prince, as does Billy Magnussen as his equally charming and insincere princely brother (who longs for fair Rapunzel). Their witty duet, “Agony,” performed in the midst of a babbling brook, is one of the film’s most dynamic numbers. But as onstage, the richest part here is that of the baker’s wife, a loyal helpmeet who can’t help but wonder if she’s cut out for grander things, and who pays dearly for that curiosity. And Blunt (once again under Streep’s thumb, as in “The Devil Wears Prada”) has just the right nurturing yet wistful air to make the character heartbreaking in spite of (or rather, because of) her all-too-human flaws.

For the screen, Lapine has somewhat condensed the show’s second half, diluting the sense that the characters, having achieved their ostensible goals by intermission, still long for something more. Mostly, though, the second-act doozies are still here: the deaths, the betrayals and the buck-passing standoff with a very angry female giant (Frances de la Tour). All of that should send wise children and their parents out into the night mulling the complex nature of love and loss, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and the things both good and ill we pass on from one generation to the next. “Anything can happen in the woods,” goes one Sondheim lyric, and the same might be said of Hollywood musicals. Sometimes, by happy luck, they manage to get one right.

Film Review: 'Into the Woods'

Reviewed at DGA Theater, New York, Nov. 28, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 124 MIN.

Production: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Lucamar/Marc Platt production. Produced by John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt, Callum McDougall. Co-producers, Angus More Gordon, Michael Zimmer.

Crew: Directed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay, James Lapine, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim, Lapine. Camera (color, Arri Alexa HD, Fotokem prints), Dion Beebe; editor, Wyatt Smith; music and lyrics, Sondheim; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; score adaptation, David Krane; music producer, Mike Higham; music supervisors, Paul Gemignani, Mike Higham; musical staging, John DeLuca, Rob Marshall; production designer, Dennis Gassner; supervising art director, Chris Lowe; art directors, Andrew Bennett, Ben Collins, Mary Mackenzie; set decorator, Anna Pinnock; costume designer, Colleen Atwood; make-up and hair designer, Peter Swords King; sound (Dolby Digital), John Casali; supervising sound editors, Renee Tondelli, Blake Leyh; re-recording mixers, Mike Prestwood Smith, Michael Keller; visual effects supervisor, Matt Johnson; visual effects producer, Kenrick Wallace; visual effects, MPC, Atomic Arts, Digital Dimension, Soho VFX; special effects supervisor, Stefano Pepin; stunt coordinator, Mark Mottram; assistant director, Ben Howarth; second unit directors, John DeLuca, Thomas Napper; second unit camera, Alan Stewart; casting, Francine Maisler.

With: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Simon Ruddell Beale, Joanna Riding, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, Annette Crosbie, Chris Pine, Richard Glover, Frances de la Tour.

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A Production Of Into The Woods

Into the Woods Review

Into the woods was an adventurous play that was perfect for the use of your imagination and spirit. Into the Woods had numerous different fairy tales involved which could make a small child feel like he/she was in heaven. The acting, music, concept, stage design, costumes, and even the language of the play all mixed to perfection. The crowd became involved right away with the irony of the play. I liked how Into the Woods was set up in the beginning because it made the play easier to follow. However, the play seemed to be a little lengthy and some of the characters became annoying. I do not believe the second part of the play altogether was necessary. Into the Woods did not fulfill my expectations to the max, although, the play was enjoyable to experience.

Into the Woods started off with three different scenes on stage all at once. One scene was Cinderella, the other was Jack and the Bean Stock with his mother with Jack's best friend the cow, and the third was a baker and his wife with Little Red Riding Hood mixing in scene. Cinderella was on the floor cleaning and the two sisters as well as the Mother were picking on Cinderella and talking about going to the Ball. The second scene was about Jack's mother needing money so Jack was to go into the woods and sell his best friend the cow. The third scene was the baker and his wife talking about how they wanted a child but the witch put a curse on them until they retrieved three items for her. It was ironic how all three scenes required them to go into the woods.

Throughout the play Cinderella, Jack, The Baker, The Baker's wife, Little Red Riding Hood, and all of the other characters mixed into the plot and had weird circumstances erupt in the woods. Finally, Cinderella did not want the price and tried to hide. Jack killed a Giant and was wanted by the Giant's wife while his mother died worrying about her him. The Witch became beautiful and lost her powers. She also had a daughter that had long beautiful hair that characters climbed up to get to her and she was also being looked for by another prince. The Baker and his wife finally had a child and then the wife died. Little Red Ridding Hood had her grandmother was eaten and the wolf was killed by the Baker. Jack stole from the giant's gold and the Giant's wife went on a rampage and attacked the city. She also demanded that her husband's killer be brought to her. Towards the end the group of characters worked together to kill the wife of the Giant. All of the characters went into the woods for a specific reason. Weather it was for love, life or death, or even riches, Into the Woods was a play for everyone.

The overall TEXT (themes, ideas, issues, language) of Into the Woods was spectacular. The themes or the plot was great. Into the Woods was easy to follow and it amazed me how everything came together and how the writer was able to bring together so many fairy tales into one. I enjoyed how creative the play...

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