Into the Woods


Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

(2014) Musical (Disney) Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Lilla Crawford, Tracy Ullman, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosby, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Richard Glover, Pamela Betsy Cooper. Directed by Rob Marshall

We all of us grow up with fairy tales. The works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are known to us if for no other reason than the Disney animations based on them.

In 1986 legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim took the characters from a number of different fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and turned it into a Broadway musical. The thing got rave reviews, a legion of fans and a boatload of Tony Awards. It is revived regularly to this day. Now Disney is taking it to the big screen and has enlisted Rob Marshall who was successful doing the same for Chicago.

\In a small village on the edge of a dark and deep forest lies a village in which lies a Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). They are basically good and decent people who yearn to have a child of their own but they can’t seem to make it work. Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) stops by their shop and begs for bread to give to her ailing grandmother (Crosby). The good-hearted couple and Red takes a lot more than they bargained for.

They are then accosted by the Witch (Streep) who lives next door who informs them that their line is cursed because the Baker’s father (Beale) stole some magic beans from the Witch’s garden. Dear old dad fled and left the Baker on his own to run the business. However there’s a way out – if the Baker can gather a cow as white as snow, cloth as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, she can create a spell that will lift the curse and allow them to have children. There is a deadline however for the spell to work.

Elsewhere Cinderella (Kendrick) lives with her Stepmother (Baranski) and that lady’s two daughters – Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch) from a previous marriage – and is being generally ridiculed and abused by the three women. She longs to go to the King’s Ball but that isn’t going to happen; the girl is basically dressed in rags but a gown is required. She is met in the forest by Prince Charming (Pine) who notices the girl’s plucky courage at walking in the woods by herself.

Young Jack (Huttlestone) is somewhat dense and something of a dreamer. His mom (Ullman) is exasperated with the boy; they are very poor and the harvest was bad, their milk cow Milky White wasn’t giving milk and there simply won’t be enough food to last them through the winter. She tells him that he must sell the cow at the market in the village and sadly, he leads his only friend away to market.

Jack and the Baker meet up in the woods and the latter convinces the former to exchange the cow for some beans he had in his pocket which the Baker convinces Jack are magic beans. Jack takes the beans, the Baker takes the cow and when Jack’s mother finds out she furiously chucks the beans away. Turns out that those beans that were the magic beans the Baker’s father stole and had left in his hunting jacket that he’d left behind and which the Baker now wore into the woods. A giant beanstalk grows and you know what happens after that.

Actually, you know most of what happens up until about the middle of the story. Then things start going sideways. Happily ever afters are relatively rare in this or any other world and there are consequences for the things that we do and they aren’t always pleasant ones.

Marshall knows how to bring big production values to his stage adaptations and he utilizes them here. While the movie was mostly filmed on sets, the woods actually look like woods (the set was so realistic that Pine and Blunt got lost in the woods and had to be rescued by a production assistant). The singing which was mostly pre-recorded is also quite adequate, particularly by Streep who has an excellent set of pipes as we learned from Mamma Mia. In fact her performance as the witch is one of the standouts here; she gives a character who is ostensibly wicked depth and feeling, making her a more sympathetic creature than perhaps she has any right to be. Blunt, as the Baker’s wife, is flawed and makes mistakes but she has a wonderful heart and really tugs at the heartstrings late in the film. She also has some pretty fine chemistry with Corden.

Pine and Magnussen both provide comedy relief in the form of a song called “Agony” which involves much posing by a waterfall. We are reminded once again that fairy tales – and Disney for that matter – are all about the princess for a reason. In fact, most of the musical numbers are staged well, although the general complaint that I have with Sondheim is that he tends to overwork his musical themes to death and that is certainly the case here.

The juvenile actors are a little bit less satisfactory. While Crawford is adequate, Huttlestone overacts and sings like he’s in a junior high school play. I normally don’t like taking shots at young actors but it really was distracting from the overall film and lessened my enjoyment of it.

If you come into the theater expecting Once Upon a Time or Galavant from ABC (a subsidiary of Disney) you’re going to be shocked. The tone here is dark, very dark – particularly in the second act. There is some violence, people do get killed (sometimes onscreen as we watch) and people deal with grief, cheating spouses and imminent peril from a very pissed-off giant.

Nonetheless this is still more entertaining than I expected it to be, given that Marshall’s track record since Chicago has been pretty uneven. It also doesn’t have the magic I hoped it would have, given the love that the musical has enjoyed for decades. It’s good enough to recommend, but not good enough to rave over.

REASONS TO GO: Decent performances and some unexpected twists and turns. Fairly strong representation of the Broadway show.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A few disturbing images, a suggestive scene involving adultery and some adult thematic material as well as fantasy action and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically, Emily Blunt who plays a woman unable to have a baby was pregnant during the shoot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Two Faces of January

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters


This isn't your grandparents' Hansel and Gretel.

This isn’t your grandparents’ Hansel and Gretel.

(2013) Fantasy Action (MGM/Paramount) Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann, Pihla Viltala, Derek Mears, Robin Atkin Downes (voice), Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Joanna Kulig, Rainer Bock, Bjorn Sundquist, Zoe Bell, Kathrin Kuhnel. Directed by Tommy Wirkola

Even after I outgrew them, I always loved fairy tales. You know, the sort in which brave heroes outwit fiendish foes, beautiful princesses await rescuing and fantastic creatures exist in a kind of idealized Renaissance Faire-like environment which is free of disease, the commoners were well-treated by their land-owning nobles and nobody starves, living a simple life in which everyone is basically good. You know, Fantasyland.

Certainly it never existed in real life. Still, we all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, a brother and sister who wandered into the woods to find a cottage made of candy – what child wouldn’t investigate that. But then they meet the owner of the cottage – a witch who uses the candy to attract children whom she imprisons, fattens up and then cooks. Sort of like Gordon Ramsay on estrogen. Of course the kids trick the witch and shove her into her own oven. And there the tale ends.

But in a marvelous idea of what-if, a 15-years older and wiser Hansel and Gretel are posited. They have evolved into professional witch hunters, travelling from village to village to rid them of the witch menace while collecting the bounties offered. Hansel (Renner) ate too much candy at the witch’s cottage and now must inject himself periodically or die. Think of it as fairy tale diabetes. Gretel (Arterton) is a kick-ass ninja who while beautiful and desirable doesn’t seem to have any takers. Hansel, on the other hand has attracted the comely Mina (Viltala) whom he rescued from being burned by the overzealous Sheriff (Stormare) who resents the bounty hunters incursion into his territory. It seems that children have been disappearing in great numbers in the village as of late.

Notwithstanding, the Mayor (Bock) insists so the pair go after the kids and find the witch responsible. Which happens to be Muriel (Janssen), who has it in her head to perform a ritual in a few days during the blood moon that will let her create a potion that will permanently make witches immune to fire. Muriel also has a connection to their late mother (Kuhnel) and Gretel herself has in turn a connection to this ritual.

So they need to stop this thing from happening but they will have to get past an angry sheriff (whose had his nose broken by the no-nonsense Gretel), a monstrous troll (Mears, voiced by Downes) and a coven of very nasty witches who have a broomstick up their butts about the whole thing.

Wirkola, best known for Dead Snow, the zombie Nazi ski resort horror film of a few years back, has a great concept to work with. Unfortunately, his writers (of which he is one) do nothing creative with it. This is a generic fantasy action film with nothing unusual to recommend it.

Oh, Renner is good. Renner is, in fact great. He has a kind of sardonic grin throughout as if he is saying to the audience “Yeah, I know it’s crap but it’s a paycheck and I’m gonna have a great time making it.” He’s a terrific action hero as he showed last summer with The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. He’s a star and time will tell how big he’ll be. This movie unfortunately won’t help.

It might help Arterton though. She’s had some pretty good performances in films that ranged from good (Tamara Drewe) to not-so-good (Prince of Persia) and here she continues that streak. She’s due a movie that is worthy of her talents and one in which she’ll get enough fans where she can be a star herself. She’s not quite there yet though.

As you might guess, there are a lot of effects here much of which have to do with witches getting eviscerated by Hansel and Gretel (a sentence which sounds kind of crazy on its own merits). There is the troll who is well realized with some very evocative facial expressions; there are also tons of fire effects some of which looks none too realistic. It’s pretty much hit and miss. The 3D incidentally is pretty miserable; there really isn’t much reason to have made this movie in 3D other than as a cash grab; that they pushed back the movie nearly a full year in order to retro-convert it is even worse.

This is a major disappointment. They had a great idea but could think of nothing good to do with it. There are some humorous bits – drawings of the missing children on the milk bottles for example but not enough of them. The anachronisms – the swearing, the machine guns, the magic bullets – simply don’t work. They remind you that you’re watching a movie instead of being part of a mysterious. The reason that a movie like this works is that you feel a part of the experience. The reason that it doesn’t is that you’re constantly reminded that you aren’t.

REASONS TO GO: Renner and Arterton are pretty damn good. Janssen makes an effective baddie. Edward the Troll is nicely realized.

REASONS TO STAY: A great concept poorly executed. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence albeit mostly of the fairy tale variety although there is a goodly amount of gore i.e. heads exploding, heads being hacked off, heads being stepped on etc. – this isn’t a good movie to be a head. There is also some brief nudity, a bit of sexuality and a lot of bad language – who knew there were so many f bombs in medieval Germany!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was already in pre-production and was to be about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the news broke that Bin Laden was dead. Immediately the screenplay was re-written to turn the movie into the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100; the reviews are miserable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Pearl Harbor