Film review of the fairy-tale musical by Stephen Sondheim, starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and James Corden.
Director: Rob Marshall. Disney/Lucamar Productions/Marc Platt Productions. (PG)
Cast & credits
Producers: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Callum McDougall, Marc Platt.
Writer: James Lapine.
Camera: Dion Beebe.
Music/Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim.
Sets: Dennis Gassner.
Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard, Frances De La Tour, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Billy Magnussen.
A wicked witch (Streep) sets a baker (Corden) a number of tasks to remove a curse placed on him and his wife (Blunt) that condemned them to a childless marriage. He sets off on an odyssey to complete them which seems him meet a number of characters also on their own adventures, such a boy (Huttlestone) trying to sell a cow to earn money for his family, a little girl in a red cape (Crawford) and a put-upon young woman called Cinderella (Kendrick) who simply must attend a party in a far off land.
As I have mentioned in previous reviews, I do not really like musicals, especially those that are mostly lyric and less dialogue.
Such films are infected with what I call ‘Sondheim-itis’, or a tendency for a musical to eschew drama in favour of full-on song, with even the most mundane words caterwauled with full fervour, as seen and heard in the work of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
It’s the ‘Has somebody got a potato?’ predicament; just sing it, whatever it is. The response is also belted out at the highest octave possible, sometimes with a cute dance routine:
‘Boiled, mashed or fried?
A main, or a little on the side?’
The trouble with such heavy-handed musicality is that those comparatively dull words that lead us and the characters from one moment to the next are given the same prominence as the key musical songs, muting the impact of the better songs.
So imagine the internal conflict I have gone through with this film version of a Sondheim stage musical first staged in the mid-80’s. I’ve had trouble even writing a review for it, loathing it on the one hand, loving aspects of it on the other, made more difficult by the wide ranging praise this adaptation has received.
In spite of myself, I did actually come out of the cinema skipping with something approaching delight. As I type these words, the title song has even reappeared in my brain, dancing merrily around as I try to type out some oh so very serious words of rebuke against its sprightly, old-fashioned charm offensive.
So, ‘into the woods with the good bits I go’!
This is a portmentau fairy-tale, stuffed to the celluloid hilt with Grimm brothers type creations, converging and interacting with each other as the narrative progresses, the type of fairy-tale movie Robert Altman may have handled had he lived longer.
As with Altman films, there is some clever plotting and action setting, especially in the first few minutes in which most of the main protagonists and story threads are introduced in one musical number, Marshall’s camera spinning around them – cinematically smart and not overdone.
Unfortunately, the more characters and plot-lines that are added, the more cluttered the screen space becomes. It becomes a sometimes loud mess of too many voices and bodies leaping around and unnecessary scenes, such as Cinderella’s numerous trips to the ball to dance with her Prince. He describes her dance as so magnetic and arousing to him that he is drawn to seek her out when she vanishes into the night, so it is unaccountable to not show this.
Later, after the marriage of the Prince to his Princess, we hit a natural end to the film that is then suddenly stretched out for a further half hour. This is a long film that could have been much shorter.
Despite featuring a roster top stars not readily associated with fabulous singing voices, the cast are all in fine tune and produce some exceptionally entertaining roles, especially the miraculous Streep (is there any role this woman cannot nail?). With an expressionistic physical style, her stance as the ugly witch is contorted, arthritic, a visual manifestation of a tortured soul.
Depp plays the Big Bad Wolf as if he is a predatory paedophile lusting after Little Red Riding Hood with a disturbing accent on certain words. She is “pink and plump…simply lush”. He overplays the high camp though to offset any of the more disturbing aspects of traditional fairy tales.
The comedic side of the film is enhanced by the two handsome, preening Princes (Pine and Magnussen), who duet on the funniest song in the film ‘Agony’, vaingloriously trying to outdo each other with mock love-as-emotional-torture lyrics, one exposing his royally athletic chest, the other his monarchical six-pack.
The supporting cast is rounded out by some wonderful grotesques, namely Baranski as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and Ullman as young Jack’s cow-hating mother.
The technical side of the film is peerless throughout. The cinematography, dark but with the accent on rich and velvety primary colours, recalls paintings of the era these tales gained prominence in print in the late 18th and early 19th century, Velazquez and Rubens, the dappled light in Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton stunningly recreated in the deep forest scenes.
The costumes also deserve special mention, particularly Streep’s billowing, cold blue dress when she turns to being beautiful again.