Witnessed at the 11th Dubai International Film Festival
World Premiere: The Cinema of the World Closing Night Gala Screening
Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
So here’s an unwarranted confession: I’ve had a major crush on Meryl Streep (Adaptation) for possibly the longest time ever. There’s a possibility I still do, because I’ve been on a scurrying phase of desperation to catch up with almost all of her films.
Of course, celebrity crushes account for biases in opinions of all kinds, but here I was, at the closing night gala, attempting to figure out how to get as objective as possible about a film featuring Streep as one of the possible standouts in a rather promising musical.
But then again, Streep isn’t the only one who raises the bar of expectations. The movie features a dazzling all-starcast of Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), James Corden (Begin Again) and Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands) among other notably wonderful performers.
The one aspect that shoots the expectation levels of Into the Woods off the roof, however, is director Rob Marshall. having received an almost unanimous critical acclaim with his musical Chicago, whilst returning back to it almost five years ago with the larger-than-life Nine (which, coincidentally, also premiered at the 6th Dubai International Film Festival). While the latter wasn’t as dazzlingly praised or financially well-received as the former, it still stood its own ground with the performances and choreography, which seems to be cakewalk for the director.
There’s almost always grounds for skepticism though, isn’t there? People who remember Marshall’s last Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would definitely agree. But with directors who’ve had an unpredictable quality-graph with movies (basically those who aren’t M. Night Shyamalan, which means everyone), you can never know.
What’s it About?
Throwing in your favorite fairytales – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel et al – into the blender, whilst adding in some Burton-Spice, the movie interweaves them all with an original story about a childless baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). Songs are sung, paths are retrodden, and a third act is introduced to turn the tables on the audience. Pure and simple, except that it’s kinda not.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The movie begins on a terrific note, what with some rhythmic parallel cuts being absolutely focussed on the story and its adjoining music – which, by the way, is its heart and soul. Marshall takes us along this journey with a flow that’s immensely enjoyable. You’re treated to some dazzlingly detailed set designs through and through; add that up with some suitably over-the-top theatrical performances, and you’ve gotten yourself a winning family film that’s both clever and entertaining.
Except for one major problem.
If you’re not a fan of the Sondheim-Lapine created stage musical, you’re probably looking at this solely from the point of view of a film – and this is the exact phase I was in too, for after the rather headily enjoyable adaptation of the First Act, came the Second.
Things start to go way downhill from there. The film seems long, overstretched, and – quite frankly – unwelcome almost. Despite some towering choreography (Last Midnight, sung to perfection by Streep) and great twists in its take on all the fairytales, its potentially promising message on cause-and-effect is watered down by how exceptionally lengthy it feels. Although not as disappointing as Clint Eastwood’s highly-anticipated musical adaptation of Jersey Boys that just didn’t make the cut on its promises on screen, it’s a bit of a downer seeing that this film could have scored so much more on emotion than anything else.
Honestly, for all the adaptations of all the last of financially viable young-adult book franchises being split into two, this is the film that most required the two-part treatment. There’s so much that could have been achieved with Act II – both storywise and structure-wise – which, unfortunately, is watered down to make itself feel like an unwanted guest who doesn’t do anything – doesn’t make things better, but doesn’t turn it into a hellhole either – but become a progressively annoying redundancy – and here’s why. While the first act is given enough detail, space and rhythm, the second feels hurried and tacked on for the simple sake of staying loyal to the source material, whilst also being (possibly?) restricted to the should-be-crisp-enough 124 minute-long runtime.
Thankfully, even for its major flaws, there’s a lot to look forward to. Dion Beebe’s striking, dramatically lit frames perfectly capture the essence of the old-world fairytale-like charm, whilst also infusing a surrealist sinisterness that shows very well. The accompanied camera operations rhythmically move with the characters to perfection. Composer of the source musical Stephen Sondheim uses a lot of the original music – produced and mixed very well, might I say – whilst also having composed some new situational pieces (She’ll Be Back) especially for the film. Wyatt Smith’s parallel edits fit in impressively with the music. This helps knit the movie in seamlessly.
To Perform or Not to Perform
Meryl Streep pitches in an undoubtedly winning performance in the film, gripping the viewers as they witness her towering presence in theatrical emotivity. She is the first – and the most important – reason anyone must watch the film. Emily Blunt is next in line, with her entertaining act as the baker’s wife. Like I might have previously mentioned, she’s a dynamic talent. You cannot ignore that being a “Full Metal B*tch” in one and then going ahead with a role like this in the other – both in the same year – is no mean feat. Chris Pine is entertaining, with his highpoint being his performance of Agony, which strikes the funny-entertaining note big time. James Corden injects a lovable performance, high on emotion. Christine Baranski, who also collaborated with Marshall on Chicago, ups the ante of evil as Cinderella’s stepmother, belting out yet another strong performance. For her talent, Lucy Punch (Hot Fuzz) is not quite as well-utilized though. Tracey Ullman is yet another winner in her short role. Mackenzie Mauzy’s Rapunzel is efficient, while Magnussen does a good job as her prince. The real surprise though, is Lilla Crawford, the breakout performer of Annie’s Broadway revival. Though her role doesn’t have much meat, there’s a lot to look forward to when it comes to expressiveness and confidence. Daniel Huttlestone (Les Misérables) is engaging and consistent. And last, but not the least, there’s Johnny Depp, who is fun to watch, but, for his role, ends up with his presence for a rather short time. Everyone else pitches in functional performances.
For the headily enjoyable first act, a winning production design, fantastic performances and some fun, practical visual effects that are inspired heavily by the set-designs of theatre extravaganzas, this is a mostly well-directed and choreographed film that sadly drags on with its hurried, sans-emotion adaptation of the source’s second act that restricts any redemption of the potential the content had to flourish. At the risk of repeating myself, it would have been a risk worth taking to have produced the two acts as two separate films for better effect and a more focussed direction.
Regardless, however, the movie is far, far from a bad film. For its darker tone, it might not have been an appropriate Christmas release, but there’s still a lot to like from this holiday release to ignore it completely.
Warrants a one-time watch with cautiously optimistic pre-movie expectations.
Star Rating: 3 / 5