Review: Into the Woods

When our daughters were children, one of their favorite videos to watch was the the Great Performance’s recording of the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods. For a while when T was very young, we only let her watch the first act, deeming the second act, which goes into the aftermath of “happily ever after,” too dark for her – until her four-year-older-and-wiser sister filled her in on the rest of the play and we let her watch the whole performance.  All of which gives you insights into the kind of family we are…

At any rate, long before the current spate of fractured fairy tale mash-ups, there was the brilliance of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods.  Besides uncounted viewings of the original Broadway cast, my daughters got to see the 2002 Broadway revival with Vanessa Williams, for which we also owned the CDs, for singing along on long car rides. We have also seen local productions, most recently at the CIder Mill.  So, I had high hopes and a few misgivings about the new movie version of our family favorite.

Fortunately, I enjoyed the movie very much. While there had to be some cuts to shorten the length from the original theatrical production, they were made very judiciously, with only a few song/dialogue cuts that we missed. We had to admit that, while we enjoy the reprise of the Princes’ “Agony,” it was better for the flow of the movie to have cut it, especially when the first act version of it is so charmingly (over)played as it is in the film.

There are a number of songs performed by an ensemble of characters and I thought that the filming of these, moving among the characters in their different settings was very effective, especially the opening version of “Into the Woods.”  I also thought it was a great choice to use the sung finale music over the first part of the credits.

My favorite performers were the three main female characters. Meryl Streep made a very convincing witch, aided by cinematic effects that let her appear and disappear in a swirl. Working for a camera instead of a large theater, she was able to show more subtlety than she would have been able to in a theater. Anna Kendrick made a wonderful CInderella. We especially liked that “On the Steps of the Palace” took place on the steps of the palace, rather than in the woods, giving her the chance to sing about her decision as it was happening, rather than reflecting on it later, as she does in the stage version.  Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife carries a lot of the heart and lesson-learning of the film. One hopes that this role, which won a Tony for Joanna Gleason in the original Broadway cast, will win some awards for Ms. Blunt.

The real star of the movie for me is Stephen Sondheim, whose clever and sophisticated lyrics and music make the whole production lively and touching, ably assisted by James Lapine, who wrote the book/screenplay. Because I know the show well, the clever lines were familiar to me. I was sitting next to someone in the theater who did not know the musical at all. It was fun listening to him react to the wordplay.

I’m hoping to be able to see the movie again while it is in the theaters and will definitely want to add it to my DVD collection when it becomes available. I hope other people will enjoy it as much as I did.

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