difficult to evaluate a musical. The whole experience is just on an entirely
different plane than a "regular" movie. Characters can just burst
out into song at any moment, and everyone else acts like that's perfectly
normal. You don't see the background orchestra, or the conductor, so it's not
a fully-fleshed out musical performance, either. In some ways, it needs to be
evaluated both musically and dramatically, but not exclusively by either. And
of course the interplays of the script, orchestration, screenplay, and
direction all make a huge difference, in part because the viewer is never able
to completely engage in suspension of disbelief. As a viewer, you're never not
aware that you're looking at a movie. You're not going to "lose
yourself" here; you're always aware that you're watching actors
performing. And of course your level of enjoyment will vary considerably,
according to your individual dosage of musicality in the first place.
particular critic's dosage of musicality is pretty much confined to singing in
church choirs and strumming a little guitar. But a little knowledge is a
dangerous thing. Under the erroneous assumption that limited life experience
is sufficient qualification for music criticism, here goes:the singing in this film is good, but not great.
Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, who also sang in "Pitch Perfect"), the
lead, possesses a kind of nasally soprano that holds the key OK but doesn't
soar with vibrancy, or amaze with rich overtones. The Witch (Meryl Streep, who
also sang in "Mama Mia") has a stronger voice, but her determination
to rasp and cackle her way through her part causes the style to overpower the
substance. Prince Charming (Chris Pine) can carry a tune just well enough for
suitable self-parody. His duet with Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnusen) is the
genuinely comic moment of this otherwise dark film, which takes place largely
in the deep, dense Woods, where very strange things happen.
plots are loose structures, like scaffolding, to hold up the musical numbers,
which hang like banners on the scaffolding. The plot here involves the
convergence/divergence of several familiar fairy tales. There’s Little Red
Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, whose breathy little-girl voice has no
resonance), Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy),
and an original tale, The Baker (James Corden) and The Baker's Wife (Emily
Blunt), weaved into a story line that depends on some character interaction,
some costumes and set design, and a whole lot of the viewer's imagination. And
the Woods is a place where poor Red Riding Hood's grandmother really can get
eaten by The Wolf (Johnny Depp, an accomplished actor whose singing is barely
adequate). The Woods is where The Witch can demand that The Baker and his Wife
collect the ingredients of a magic potion to restore her former beauty. (Alas,
she shouldn't have bothered, because nobody recognizes her, and nobody cares,
anyway, which causes her to miss her evil powers of ugliness.) The Woods is
where Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, who sings OK for a kid, but is not a
show-stopper, either) trades his beloved but useless cow for the magic beans.
And The Woods is where the Giant (Frances de la Tour) stalks the earth in
search of the thieving Jack, who caused the falling death of her beloved Giant
husband (but I really missed the bellowing bass "Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum").
But it's a
pretty dark plot that punishes Cinderella's wicked stepsisters with
blindness--- we're supposed to think it's funny that they then stumble over
themselves? It's even difficult to delight in the vengeance wreaked upon The
Witch, who imprisoned her daughter Rapunzel "for her own good." (Rapunzel
seems to revel in her turn at witchy/bitchy in her own right.) Neither Jack
nor Little Red Riding Hood actually have homes to go back to, and can
Cinderella and The Baker ever forgive their respective spouses for succumbing
together to the seductive atmosphere of those deep, anonymous Woods?
"Into the Woods" very high marks for creativity. You won't see
anything else quite like it on the big silver screen this year. But this tart,
tangy, little tempest in a teapot will not be everyone's cup of tea.
Ronald P. Salfen is the Parish Associate, Woodhaven Presbyterian Church,