Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep) at the 87th Annual Academy Awards
Nominated for Best Production Design (Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock) at the 87th Annual Academy Awards
Nominated for Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood) at the 87th Annual Academy Awards
To paraphrase my favorite film critic, adapting Stephen Sondheim is like playing chess–so why is director Rob Marshall consistently swinging for a home run? He didn’t do such a bad job with “Chicago” when he got showered in Academy Awards over a decade ago, but Kander & Ebb is an entirely different beast than S.S. Want to see a Sondheim film adaptation done right? Watch Tim Burton’s 2007 “Sweeney Todd”, a motion picture as fine as any of the various stage productions of said musical that I’ve seen. And if you need to experience Sondheim being botched…well, here we are. But you’re expected to take it very seriously because it garnered Meryl Streep her 19th Oscar Nomination! Never mind that she hasn’t deserved one in years, the Academy basically bestows her now just for showing up. I saw Bernadette Peters create the “Witch” character on Broadway in 1988–and Meryl is no Ms. Peters. At least not as a musical theatre performer–trust me.
It’s a mixture and cross-breeding of certain fairy tales, you see. And there are an abundance of “happy endings” initially, until the world turns darker and takes some of them away–or simply diverts them. It’s rather jarring on stage, and rather muted on-screen. Blame Mr. Marshall and Disney for that. This is not supposed to be a kiddie show, but it’s being marketed as such. I’ve heard that many people attended only to be shocked that this is a musical! Don’t get me started on the lack of culture amongst the masses, that can’t recognize one of the most celebrated musicals of the last 30 years. Meryl Streep is The Witch. Johnny Depp is The Wolf (briefly, I should warn you–and neutered I might add). Anna Kendrick is Cinderella. James Corden is the Baker. Emily Blunt is the Baker’s Wife. MacKenzie Mauzy is Rapunzel. And Chris Pine is Cinderella’s Prince. Oh, there’s a Giant too. Plus, a Giant’s Wife. And…No…One…Stands…Out. I mean, no one is straight out horrible, but nothing very memorable comes from any of them either. Not even you, Meryl.
Still, some of Sondheim’s genius manages to fight its way in. The “Into the Woods” song is obnoxiously infectious no matter how you slice it (and it has been sliced here). And “Children Will Listen” and “No One is Alone” achieve their desired impact, as well. Hey, it’s probably impossible to completely mess Sondheim up–his lyrics are too damn rich to fail. But nuance is called for here, and it’s all flamboyant and slathered on. And they soften the darkness for this version–to its detriment. Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” is about life’s intricate passageways, but Marshall’s “Into the Woods” is about being a fairy tale and looking good (outside of Streep, it’s Oscar noms are for production design and costumes, so hey–mission accomplished, right!). But it’s been financially successful, so that’s all that matters to many. Burton got “Sweeney” (with Depp as a marvelous Demon Barber) right, and was rewarded with 53 million domestic box office. Marshall clumsily half-asses Sondheim, but the numbers will probably triple that. There you go. The studios don’t think Marshall failed. But if you’ve watched “Into the Woods” on stage, you realize there’s something missing.
next reviews up: “Unbroken” & “Maleficent”…plus the Ten Best Films of 2014!
*Editor’s note: some promised January reviews are still on the way. The films have been watched, and the delay can be blamed on this torrid awards season work schedule. Thanks for your patience! ML