Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Into the Woods : A Movie Review

     I’ve always preferred movies over live plays. I wish the reason was that movies won’t include cast mistakes; or the props will be top-notch; there won’t be technical difficulties or any other disruptions… but that’s not it. The truth is, being in the near vicinity of devoted role-players really makes me uneasy.

     From what I can remember, when I was a child my family attended a screening of The Wizard of Oz in a beautiful old-fashioned movie theater… and there were some costumed characters (including the Wicked Witch of the West) that lingered around guests in the lobby or in the aisles with the audience. Had it been any other movie, perhaps I would have been fine - but I tell you, that witch was the singular source of any and all childhood nightmares that I ever had.

     The point is, to this very day, live plays tend to make me uncomfortable. I rarely watch them unless I have friends in the cast. And even then, I prefer a nice spot in the back; somewhere a bit harder for villains to reach, just in case that personality taking over my friend’s body decides not to depart after the play is over.

     No, seriously. It’s the most ridiculous, irrational fear that I’ve ever heard of… but it’s true. And mine.

     However, there is one play that I’ve seen on multiple occasions: performed by middle-schoolers, by high-schoolerss, and finally by a college cast… And all three times, it had me rolling in my seat.

     Needless to say, when Into the Woods was released as a fully-fledged movie, I had some reserved excitement. Some might say it wasn't a good idea to come in as a reviewer, since I was already familiar with the plot. But I'd say that I was ideally-suited for the job, because I've only ever seen the first half of the play, and not the second half: that made me the perfect combination of expert and novice on it.

     You see, the play's intermission actually occurs right after a (seeming) happy ending, so most junior performances end with that. Only the college production that I attended actually performed both acts (but I had to leave early for work, so I missed the second half. Blasted adulthood).

     Normally before I attend a movie, I can generate an idea of how good or bad it will be just by looking at the Newsfeed from all my fellow filmmakers. (Everyone's a critic. Besides, opinionated media buffs are my type of people.)

     Sometimes their nutshell reviews will build incorrect expectations for me, but on the whole I find their commentary to be spot-on and helpful. Strangely enough, I heard more hype about Into the Woods when it was cast than when it was actually released… so I had almost no context when I walked into the theater. But no matter; it was my favorite play, so I was going to watch it (and enjoy it, surely).

     The sets and landscape were certainly impressive; that was the first thing that I noticed. And it helped the story, making sense as to how so many people could get lost and run circles around one another in a single forest.

     Then the quirky, familiar musical number started, the characters started parading… and I felt nothing. The spark of excitement in me never grew: it was just a spark, winking out of existence as quickly as it did in. And for some time, I wasn’t exactly sure why.

     It certainly wasn’t the story, or the music. Both I knew well, and they were performed cleanly enough. It wasn't even the physical absence of the mysterious Old Man and the Narrator, both of whom are major characters in the first and second act, respectively. For a while, I wasn't sure what was missing… and at last, I realized that we simply hadn’t seen The Actor yet.

     Every performance of Into the Woods has a certain actor, The Actor — be it Jack’s mother, a prince, even a person in a cow costume — who steals the show.

     Into the Woods is always phenomenal because despite how many times you’ve seen it, some new portrayal of any character could send you into stitches all over again; having watched the show done by three different groups, I knew that all too well.

     And so I waited, through four songs at least, before I started to wilt. I’d barely laughed three times in the past fifteen minutes. Lines that normally split my ribs were… well, just lines. There was no overdone acting, there were no pauses by the performers to allow for laughter before they went to their next line.

     Everything was detached and distant: there was no tongue-in-cheek humor to make fun of classic fairytale clichés, as if it was assumed the script could do that on its own. There wasn't even a laugh track to latch onto. Director Rob Marshall took what should have been a sitcom and turned it into a drama (though, now that I think about it, he was the guy who directed Chicago and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Yeah, that guy. Why did we hand him the reigns to a comedy, again?).

     The second half was no different from the first — if anything, it was more depressing, since that’s where all of the happy endings unravel and the characters have to patch them up again. It was so macabre, I actually wished that I had seen the play's second act before, just so that I would have some pleasant memories of comedy that could have been used in those scenes.

     By the end of the film, even though my head was swimming with delightfully-dizzying show-tunes…

     …I still felt betrayed. Not only had at least two characters been removed from the plot, but there was too much solemnity for the ridiculous parts of the show to fit in.

     The only person who didn’t grate on my nerves for the duration of the tale was the main character: the Baker, played in a rather cuddly manner by British actor James Corden.

     The Baker is one of the less-comical personalities in the story, and all of the performers around him were so carefully-reserved that it felt as as if nobody wanted to overwhelm or upstage him. But as I walked out of the dark room  and my thoughts started to reorganize themselves, I realized that everyone is supposed to upstage the Baker.

     He’s a normal person being swept off by more and more ridiculous circumstances. Not only that, but Into the Woods is the sort of story that lends itself to cheap props and minimalistic decorations - which I have seen done with incredible style and grace.

     It’s much more hilarious to see a boy be "best friends" with a wooden cow (or even better, a person in a costume who can do a secret hoof-shake) than to see him attached at the hip with a real animal.

     It’s much more fun to secretly giggle at someone trapped up in a cardboard tower than it is to watch them sitting up a real one. Actors can feed on the energy from the audience, and you never know who might steal the show from one rendition to the next.

     Yes, you read correctly; for the first time in my life, I’ve discovered that I prefer a live play over a movie. So take it from someone who’s never slandered the film medium before: if you do decide to go and see Into the Woods, I’d recommend you save a few dollars. Go to the theatre. Not the theater.


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