Musical

INTO THE WOODS (2014)

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Director: Rob Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 125 min

In a small village at the edge of the woods live a baker and his wife who long for a child. When they learn that a witch has placed a curse on their house which can only be broken in three days on the night of the blue moon, they rush into the woods to collect the ingredients they will need for the magic potion. Their paths cross with Cinderella, Jack and his cow, and a little girl in a red cape–all struggling to make their wishes come true. But even wishes have consequences.

The play Into the Woods is my favorite musical, so it is difficult for me to separate the cuts that disappointed me because I happen to love certain lines and songs from the cuts that actually hurt the story. But I think I am being fair when I say the film was enjoyable and true to the spirit of the play, but the play is definitely better.

Let me start with the good. The screenplay was written by the original playwright (James Lapine), and Sondheim adapted the music and lyrics. Meryl Streep’s witch was arguably better than Bernadette Peters (who originated the role). Lilla Crawford was a phenomenal Red Riding Hood, never faltering on the difficult vocal lines. Young Daniel Huttlestone as Jack held his own on a vocal part written for an adult tenor. Although I missed the snarkiness of Joanna Gleeson’s Baker’s Wife, Emily Blunt’s realistic and powerful portrayal fit with the overall more serious tone of the film. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella was more realistic and nuanced than Kim Crosby’s (again, a trend of the film). Tracy Ullman was perfect as Jack’s mother. Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine were appropriately hilarious as the two princes.

But the cuts (many of them necessary to translate into the film medium) took away some of the thematic depth of the play. The play is divided into two complete acts. Act one shows a complete set of fairytales from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” In fact, act one is often performed on its own. Act two shows what happens after happily ever after. The characters all have new wishes (getting their first wish hasn’t satisfied them). They feel trapped by their stories and wind up feeding the Narrator (a human character) to the giant. Having a narrator as a character wouldn’t have worked the same way in a film. His character is eliminated. And the two acts are squished together into one continuous story arc, which mostly works. But the idea of the secondary wishes is lost. The prince’s remark “I thought once I found you that I would never wish for more” applies only to himself in the film. The Baker’s Wife and the Baker never transition from new baby bliss to bitter squabbling, giving less context to later events. And because the Baker’s father is mostly eliminated as a character, references to the Baker’s fear of becoming his father are awkwardly direct and heavy-handed. Rapunzel gets a happy ending, which could diminish the witch’s cause for despair (and eliminates the grief-stricken “Children Won’t Listen” which is reprised more optimistically at the end of the play) but Meryl Streep actually handles it really well so I wasn’t too disappointed on that front.

Am I being nitpicky? Yes. It was a good film–more family-friendly than the play, enjoyable, very well-acted and well-sung. It may be even more accessible than the play–less thought required to puzzle through the meaning and numerous symbolic connections between acts one and two. But it is the thought-provoking nature of the play that makes it truly brilliant and that is lessened in the film.

FROZEN (2013)

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Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time 102 min.

Princess Anna loves playing with her big sister Elsa, especially when Elsa uses her magic powers over ice and snow to transform the Great Hall into a winter wonderland.  But one night when the sisters are playing, Elsa accidentally hits Anna with her icy powers.  Their parents rush Anna to the magic trolls, but in order to save her life, the trolls must remove all of Anna’s memories of her sister’s power.  The king and queen decide that to prevent future accidents, they will shut their family off in the castle while Elsa grows to control her powers.  And so Elsa and Anna grow up isolated from everyone else—and from each other.

After a shipwreck claims the lives of both King and Queen, the time comes for Elsa to ascend to the throne.  Anna, who has grown up very cheerful and idealistic, is thrilled for the opening of the palace gates and the chance to finally meet some new people—maybe even her True Love.  Elsa, on the other hand, is terrified that she will not be able to control her powers.  Sure enough, in the middle of the Coronation Day ball, when Anna announces that she intends to marry a prince that she just met, Elsa loses control and reveals her icy secret.  Decried as a witch, Elsa flees into the mountains, accidentally plunging the land into an eternal winter.  Determined to save her sister and the kingdom, Anna hires a slightly grumpy ice salesman, Kristoff, and his reindeer to take her on an adventure to find Elsa.

I enjoyed this film a lot; it was funny, and the music was great (Idina Menzel does Elsa’s voice!).  But I don’t think it was as good as Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph, largely because of the pacing.  The opening was great with their childhood and growing up apart—very powerful storytelling that brought tears to my eyes. But once the actual adventure started, everything felt very rushed.  I think part of the problem was that the “eternal winter” lasted like one day… And although a major theme in the film is that “love at first sight” is not as genuine and powerful as slowly-grown relationships, the Anna-Kristoff relationship develops over one night—not much better than Anna and Prince Hans.  And they spend most of their time together frantically driving from one point to the next: from Arendelle to Elsa’s castle, away from Elsa’s castle, to the trolls, back to Arendelle, away from Arendelle again–there’s a lot of motion crammed in there, making everything seem rushed.  So again, I enjoyed the movie, laughed a lot, and have had the songs stuck in my head for a week now, but I don’t think the storytelling was as solid as the Disney greats like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King—or even the more recent Tangled. 

I would definitely point out, however, that this is a much better movie for the easily frightened child than many Disney films.  There is briefly an abominable snowman, but otherwise no really scary monsters/villains.

LES MISERABLES (2012)

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Director: Tom Hooper
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 157 min.

In 1815, Jean Valjean is finally released from prison on parole; he has served 19 years as a slave in punishment for stealing a loaf of bread to save a family member from starvation.  As Valjean struggles to find employment and lodging, the startling kindness and mercy of a priest who reaches out to him moves him deeply.  Dedicating himself to the work of God and care of the poor, Valjean breaks his parole and begins a new life under a false identity. 

Several years later, Valjean has become a respected politician and businessman.  When a former prison guard, Javert, suddenly arrives in town, however, Valjean knows his true identity will soon be discovered.  Around the same time, he meets Fantine, a young woman who was fired from Valjean’s factory by a corrupt foreman and has since resorted to prostitution to provide for her young daughter, Cosette.   Realizing that Fantine is terminally ill, Valjean vows to care for Cosette.  Valjean and Cosette live a life on the run, pursued by Javert and attempting to find a safe haven in a society that is once again teetering on the brink of revolution.

An excellent film adaptation of an excellent musical! Unlike some stage-to-screen adaptations of musicals, Tom Hooper’s Les Mis keeps the focus on the music, even retaining the recitative portions of sung conversations between characters.  With the exception of the role of Javert, I never felt that either vocal talent or acting talent was compromised for the sake of the other.  Russell Crowe is undeniably a better actor than he is a singer.  Still, although his voice was sometimes overpowered by the other male voices, he was consistently on pitch and confident enough in his singing that it did not detract much from his overall performance.  And no surprises in the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway!   A great film and fun to see on the big screen–I highly recommend this adaptation of Les Miserable.