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Iconic characters Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack of Beanstalk-fame (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), find their fates intertwined with a humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), whose longing to have a child sends them on a quest to reverse a witch’s (Meryl Streep) curse. (From Disney’s original synopsis)

 Into the Woods
Fractured and appropriated fairy tales are quite fashionable all over the entertainment industry. Disney has staked a claim on the concept for decades now by securing the ‘rights’ of public domain stories for their super-popular animated movies, as well as spin-off movies, TV shows, and a veritable army of consumer products. To coincide with further Disney Princess merchandise and their Once Upon a Time television show, the Mouse House has made a movie version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Into the Woods, which originally premiered way back in 1986.

Broadway choreographer turned Oscar-winning director Rob Marshall was brought on to direct, following his work for Disney on the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I’m entirely unfamiliar with the stage musical (I didn’t even know it was based on a musical until someone told me recently), so I don’t know how the film version compares as far as the length of the songs or the way they interlock with each other. The pacing of the first act, which runs a bit longer than half the film and unveils the character and plot connections, is pretty jarring and the fact that everything important to the narrative is sung at full clip. Marshall and editor Wyatt Smith constantly teeter on the precipice of completely losing control and creating a hectic smear of colour and noise, but, even at their lowest points (including the scenes featuring Johnny Depp’s obnoxious Big Bad Wolf), the relentless pace holds together and is strengthened by general cheekiness.

 Into the Woods
Into the Woods is forced to overcome issues with familiarity during this first part. We all know these stories and have already seen them spoofed many times. The filmmakers negotiate the problem by centering the act on the baker and his wife’s points of view. They hear about the oft-told parts of the fairytales in song so that we don’t have to watch them. By the time we arrive at the completely new, post-fairytale plotlines, almost two-thirds of the run-time is already gone. It’s too bad, because this is the best part of the story and the movie I’d rather have watched; one where familiar stories are mixed up and play out in the ‘wrong’ way. As is, the second act feels under-developed and kind of like an afterthought for the cynical people in the audience. In the end, the dramatic impact is dulled almost irreparably by the sharp divide between parts – something that probably works very well for a stage production.

I’m also mostly unaware of the changes made to the original in the name of family friendliness. It’s reasonably dark subject matter with plenty of sexually suggestive subtext (the Little Red Riding Hood scenes push the story’s already sexualized undercurrents into a full-on flood of erotic implications) and all the violent stuff that’s usually removed from the Brothers Grimm adaptations. During the first act, the tonal choices are so playfully sardonic and the performances so amusingly over-the-top that I doubt too many parents will be offended. The more compelling second act, on the other hand, is bleak enough to inspire a couple of nightmares and disenfranchise some of the little ones. Based on the prevalent themes built into the play, it’s a little strange that anyone at Disney thought they could make something completely PG-friendly with the material.

Marshall appears to have taken the Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland into account, as that seems to be the new visual standard in live-action Disney fairytales, but also embraces the musical’s roots with stagey sets and make-up designs that don’t depend on a lot of CG enhancements. He avoids bright lighting and obvious green screen backdrops, as well, creating a semi-sinister, Hammer Film back-lot look (kind of like Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, actually). It’s certainly not as flashy as Chicago (there’s very little dance choreography) or as action-heavy as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, but Marshall’s choices really do work for a film version of a stage musical.

 Into the Woods

Video


Into the Woods was shot using Arri Alexa digital HD cameras and is presented here in 2.40:1, 1080p video. Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe definitely embrace the possibilities of digital colour correction, creating a number of different and very specific palettes for the various major locations. Some sets appear vivid and eclectic, like the woods themselves, which feature cool green and blue bases for the warmer costume pieces to pop against (Riding Hood’s cape, for example). Other sets, like the castle, are practically monochromatic, aside from orange highlights. As mentioned in the feature section of this review, these sometimes cartoonish colours are tempered by strong contrast and relatively dark lighting schemes. This helps punch-up the details by sharpening textures and further separating subtle design elements. Among the darker scenes that mix searing oranges and dull blues are some issues with banding and soft edges, but I assume these are inherent in the original material. Blacks are sometimes dulled a smidge in these cases as well, but are otherwise quite rich.

 Into the Woods

Audio


Into the Woods features a dazzling, full-bodied DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. The score and singing are, obviously, given precedent over anything. The music is all credited to original composer Stephen Sondheim, though it seems that the in-between, non-singing score was put together by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick based on Sondheim’s compositions. Or perhaps the many credited musical editors deserve credit. Sondheim (and company’s) orchestrations sound warm and the instruments are nicely separated without losing the sweep of the arrangements. The vocal effects are slightly and expertly differentiated between singing and speaking tones and remain the louder element of the music without overwhelming it. Some of the singing voices are more clearly ADR’d than others, but no one is obviously auto-tuned. Sound effects are mixed a bit low and are rarely as aggressive as more typical blockbuster fantasy movies, which fits as part of the film’s stage-like design. Still, there is plenty of cool sound design and directional movement between channels, especially in scenes that feature the angry giants and their LFE-rumbling footsteps.

 Into the Woods

Extras


  • Commentary with Rob Marshal and producer John DeLuca – The director and producer sound exhausted on this track, but keep it professional while covering technical challenges, production processes, and, most importantly to someone like me, the differences between the stage musical and movie. Repetition of information, slow moments, and time wasted patting actors on the back don’t ruin the overall quality of the discussion.
  • Meryl Streep Sings ‘She’ll Be Back’ (4:50, HD) – Following an introduction from Marshall, the actress performs a new song that Sondheim and Lapine wrote specifically for the film, but which was cut for pacing.
  • There’s Something About The Woods (13:20, HD) – A mixed behind-the-scenes EPK interview collection and look at the production design.
  • The Cast As Good As Gold (10:10, HD) – A casting featurette
  • Deeper Into The Woods:
    • From Stage To Screen (8:30, HD) – Further discussion of the pre-production adaptation process.
    • Magic of the Woods (7:20, HD) – Concerning the challenges of Sondheim’s compositions.
    • Designing the Woods (7:10, HD) – More on the sets and production design.
    • The Costumes of the Woods (6:50, HD) – A self-explanatory look at costume design.
  • Music & Lyrics – A Sing-along option that allows the viewer to directly access the musical segments with on-screen lyrical prompts


 Into the Woods

Overall


The division between its tonal parts makes Into the Woods an uneven feature experience, but the shift isn’t enough to block its entertainment value. It’s a good companion piece to the studio’s older and less dark subversive fairytale, Enchanted. This Blu-ray presentation is very pretty and sounds great, which is really the important thing. The extras include a solid commentary track, a deleted song written exclusively for the film, and a decent collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

 Into the Woods
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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