Musical-theater fans prepared to rejoice when they learned not one but two movie adaptations of beloved musicals would be opening this holiday season.
After seeing both films, here’s my verdict:
Half a rejoice isn’t bad.
I knew from the first moments of Rob Marshall’s fiercely theatrical and intellectually spry “Into the Woods” that I was in good hands. Broadway purists might have a quibble or two, including me, but the movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical is so wonderfully cast, and directed with so much style, grace and commitment to the source material, that I couldn’t help but swoon.
Compare that to the new modern-day, cooler-than-thou version of “Annie.” Five minutes in, I’d dug past the thin topsoil of my initial goodwill into a massive vein of indifference. Listless, miscast and punctured with awkward musical interludes, the film is about as energetic as a test mouse on Xanax. If confronted with the new “Annie” on an airplane, I’d switch to the route map.
How can one movie musical get it right and another so wrong? It’s not a surprise, frankly. Adapting something as specific as a Broadway stage musical — which by its very definition is an experience that prides itself on lulling the audience into the contrived nature of its world — is tricky indeed.
Movies are all-encompassing and realistic. (Actually, they don’t have to be, but that model dominates our culture.) Movie musicals have a higher initial hurdle to jump than a live production. Reaching a point in a movie musical where as an audience member you not only accept the characters breaking into song and dance, but actually want them to, is a major accomplishment.
“Into the Woods” is braver than most movie musicals in that it embraces the artifice of the material. Though we see some gorgeous environmental scenery, most of the scenes in the woods have a soundstage-like, theatrical quality to them. Instead of always opting for eye-popping computer-generated effects, which today’s comic-book movies deliver in spades, Marshall keeps an “offstage” sensibility to the proceedings, such as the depiction of the Lady Giant, whose blurred face we only glimpse at the top of the frame.
Sondheim’s fractured fairy-tale storyline — involving the mixed-up adventures of Cinderella, Jack of beanstalk fame, Rapunzel and others — zips between farce and tragedy, sometimes within sentences of Sondheim’s brilliant, biting lyrics. (“Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” Little Red Riding Hood sings after emerging from the Big Bad Wolf’s belly, a metaphor for her own sexual awakening. “And a little bit … not.”)
There’s little spoken dialogue in the movie, with almost all of the major plot points and character revelations sung — which actually makes it easier for an audience to fall into the embrace of a musical-theater world.
In “Annie,” on the other hand, the creative team seems almost shy of the music. When the thin, plaintive voice of Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie ekes out “Tomorrow,” it’s less a rousing anthem for resilience and more a slightly peppy pick-me-up for a nice kid.
What strikes me about “Annie” is how tentative all the musical numbers feel, from voices to choreography. Even the ensemble members, in the few times that dancing even takes place, are sheepish, as if they’re half-heartedly making a few moves at an office Christmas party. Most everyone has a decent voice, including Jamie Foxx in the “Daddy Warbucks” role to Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan, but performances either come out too low-key (Foxx) to over the top (Diaz). Don’t even get me started on Rose Byrne’s Grace, who you almost see count “1-2-3” as she tentatively stakes out each half-hearted move.
Updating “Annie” to the present day by making the title character a foster child who hooks up with a telecom billionaire just doesn’t work. The original “Annie,” set in the depths of the Depression, is as time-specific as a narrative can come. Annie represents to a weary nation that, yes, we’re all going to get through this together, and even as folks gawk at Annie’s big stroke of luck for finding the richest dad in the world, a little of that luck might come their way, too.
In the new “Annie,” any sense of being anchored to a time or place fizzles. For all the film’s depictions of social media as a way to move the narrative along, there’s little sense of community in this film, of any larger meaning beyond how cool it is to live in a sky-high Manhattan luxury condo.
I have a few qualms about “Into the Woods” as well, but they’re exceedingly minor. I don’t really mind the disappearance of the Mysterious Man (a key narrator character from the stage version), though I dearly miss his song “No More.”
And I’m a little taken aback by the young ages of the actors playing Jack and Little Red Hiding Hood in the movie, who in the Broadway version were played by adults. Both journeys have a lot to do metaphorically with sex, and the biting lyrics in conjunction with the youth of the actors and their interactions with adults made me a little uncomfortable.
However, there’s so much to admire in this beautiful film, from all-around terrific performances and vocals (from Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Lilla Crawford, Emily Blunt and James Corden particularly) to the deft alterations made from stage to screen (including a wonderful time-freeze approach to the song “On the Steps of the Palace.”)
Most important, the movie celebrates the musical’s ambiguity, which almost seems sacrilegious for a Disney production. Wishes come true here, not free. Happily ever after is in the eye of the beholder. You may think your children never listen to you, but rest assured: They do, and far more closely than you might have intended. The woods are a metaphor for life’s journey, from the tenderness of losing your innocence and disengaging from your parents to facing mortality.
I keep my favorite song from the show, “Children Will Listen,” close to my heart, and I’ll admit that more than a few times over the decades I’ve whispered the lyrics to myself in times of trial:
Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide what’s good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone.
To have that moment captured on the big screen, I’m going to forget half-measures: It truly is a time to rejoice.