Another Christmas Day musical. Based on the Stephen Sondheim stage play, this is about a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are tasked to get a list of magical items from classic fairy tale characters so as to entice a witch (Meryl Streep) to reverse a curse that she placed on his family tree. Now I wouldn’t exactly label this movie as being in my wheelhouse, as I am not a musical theatre major… but my fiancé is. I would say that I know more than the layman, but I look to her when it comes to quality checking my opinion on big musicals. She really liked it, and I thought it was well-handled. The concept of crossing over fairy tales has been done many times before, such as in the wonderful comic book series Fables, or the television series Grimm and Once Upon a Time. The stage play precedes all of those, showing that creative types have been taking liberties with these public domain characters for years and years. While I do imagine this is better suited for the stage like most big theatrical productions are (although I’ve never seen a production of the stage play all the way through, so I can’t comment officially), I do appreciate that this is a musical that isn’t afraid to get dark, which isn’t something you see every day.
Given the number of similarities, I can’t help but make comparisons to Les Misérables; they were both released for the Christmas Oscar season, they are both stage musicals converted into films and they are both large-scale ensemble pieces. I will say that I think that has a big leg up on cinematic Les Mis for a number of different reasons, the biggest one being that it is simply better directed. This is Rob Marshall who has done this sort of affair more than a few times (Chicago is stunningly irresistible), and he has a good handle on what works; unlike Tom Hooper, he doesn’t routinely park a camera on somebody for an entire number, and there’s actually a fluency in his camerawork that complements the numbers. For example, in the opening prologue number, you have lots of camera movements, cuts and dexterity as you get to meet all of the main characters.
There are two distinctive halves to this movie, as there would be with an act divide. The first act, you know exactly where it’s going, and there aren’t too many surprises; it really gets by on the strengths of its numbers, and the song “Agony” is easily the highlight of the film for me (Chris Pine is cast perfectly in his princely role). As good as the music is, you’re kind of waiting for the story that you already know to wrap up so that you can get to the unexpected, and that’s where the second half of the movie comes in and it gets interesting. The acting does feel a little stagy at times, which some of these actors can pull off more successfully than others. For instance, I was unimpressed with Johnny Depp here, as he is just doing the quirky thing that he almost always does, but fortunately, he doesn’t have all that big a role. If musicals are your thing, I think you should seek this out.
Into the Woods (2014) ***1/2
– Critic for Hire