Dinsey unveiled another piece of the Oscar season puzzle Saturday night with an innovative bi-coastal screening of their big holiday release musical , Into The Woods screening pete_hammond_300x100simultaneously in New York City and at Disney studios in Burbank (where I saw it)  that featured a satellited post- feature Q&A withCast And Filmmakers Q&A At Screening Of "Into To Woods" director Rob Marshall, Screenwriter James Lapine and key cast members. Full disclosure:  I have been in love with this Stephen Sondheim masterpiece since even before it debuted on Broadway on November 5, 1987.  Southern California native that I am I trekked down to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 1986 for its pre-Broadway tryout and instantly fell in love. It’s not only one of my favorite Sondheim musicals (in the top three to be sure with Company  and West Side Story ), but high among the greatest theatrical experiences I have ever had.  I have seen the show in various incarnations several times. And in those 28 years since its debut there have been several false starts at a film version including directors like Penny Marshall. I was hoping against hope this would be a definitive version.  I am here to say they got the right Marshall  this time,  and the man who has been behind such Broadway transfers as Nine ,  the superior TV Movie version of Annie ,  and most significantly the Best Picture Oscar winner Chicago, the last film musical to take the top prize, has thankfully done it proud.

Cast And Filmmakers Q&A At Screening Of "Into To Woods"Despite the inherent stagebound theatricality of the setting  Marshall , Lapine and Sondheim have been smart enough to realize the difference between what worked on a stage and what will work on film. Unlike similiar failed attempts at stage to screen like 1967′s Camelot or 1972′s Man Of La Mancha ,  this one sings with all the power of the source material  for a new audience,most of whom will be experiencing it for the first time.  It is, as I enthusiastically tweeted right after the conclusion of Saturday’s debut , the most dazzling movie musical since Marshall’s own Oscar winning Chicago which had the benefit like this one, of a great and smart screenplay in that case Oscar nominated writing by Bill Condon who similarly cracked the code of how to make it cinematic after two decades-plus of trying.

Disney is saying we can’t “review” it until mid-December, so I will force myself in holding back the superlatives I want to throw and instead discuss the mere miracle that this has finally reached the screen. In terms of movie  movies  the only Sondheim musicals that have become movies  since his days as only the lyricist (Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum , West Side movies-into-the-woods-1Story) have been an ill-fated 1978 film version of A Little Night Music  and a fast-disappearing 2007 version of Sweeney Todd. Johnny Depp starred in the latter and has only an amusing brief role as the Zoot Suited Wolf in Woods.  Perhaps it took his star power to move these films quicker along the production path (although Meryl Streep certainly didn’t hurt Woods saleability). But it is clearly this creative trio that has the smarts and know-how to realize the gem of a film version this has become.  Sondheim , who can be quite vocal about productions of his own work,enthusiastically endorsed Marshall’s version in a letter  (he couldnt attend as he was felled by a virus) written by him that was read by Streep (hilariously as she kept correcting his grammar) at the end of the into-the-woods-04Q&A . While noting that stage shows are “notoriously difficult” to bring to the screen he – and Lapine- were very involved in this one from start to finish and called it “an exhilarating and exciting experience that is reflected  in the final result”. But what really touched me most was Marshall’s stated reason for making the film as this point in time. “I do feel this is very much a fairy tale for the post 9/11 era. I have to say  it was 2011 and I was listening to President Obama speak to the families of the victims on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and it was incredibly moving , and he was incredibly compassionate. And he said to the families ‘you are not alone. No one is alone’. He said those  words. And I remember hearing that and thinking it is such an important message for today. It’s obviously, to me,  the main song in Into The Woods  and I felt this might be the time  for kids of today, families of today , that there might be some hope in the world. And that’s when I called you (Lapine and Sondheim) and said ‘ could we do this?’ And I feel, and I still feel that kids today live in a much more unstable and fragile world than certainly when I grew up. And I feel like there needs to be something  to hold on to, something for them to understand that it’s okay  when something happens disappointing , some loss,  and it’s that theme of loss and how you move forward that struck me. This explores  what happens after ‘Happily Ever After’ and it deals very much with life and moving forward. And I really felt this is for kids and families of today,” he said.

So for those who don’t think a musical , or something lighter , at least on the surface, has enough “gravitas” to win over more serious -minded Academy voters I would submit Into The Woods  as exhibit number one.  I have experienced enormous loss in my life, as have many people , and in addition to being a knockout entertainment I found Into the Woods  to be enormously cathartic in its own way.

Cast And Filmmakers Q&A At Screening Of "Into To Woods"The post-screening Q&A moderated expertly from NYC by New York Film Society’s Eugene Hernandez featured in addition to Marshall, Lapine and Streep, castjwyb8l9o3kgenjzqzriw members Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tracy Ullman, Chris Pine and James Corden. The latter , who is scheduled to replace Craig Ferguson in March as host of CBS’ The Late Late Show, did indeed show why he was picked for that job by stealing the Q&A with hilarious stories and observations. There were many highlights though, not least among them was Baranski’s comparision to the familial dysfunctionality to that “K family”, obviously referring to the Kardashians.  Ullman saluted the movie’s raw devotion to telling grim  Grimms Fairy Tales the way she remembers them, not the homogenized way of today (Sorry Disney, but you made up for it by financing this film).

I am not at all sure what to say about its awards possibilities.  I can’t imagine a world in which this is not duking it out for Best Comedy or Musical Golden Globe  against Birdman , or not also competing to the finish for the SAG Awards Outstanding Cast prize. If anything defines a true ensemble , it is this film.  That said I think basically this is a cast supporting each other. If there’s a nominal “lead” its Corden . He drives the action as the Baker along with his wife, played beautifully by Blunt . Disney is pushing both in lead categories which could pay off at the Globes but I don’t see Blunt’s role as large enough to get her into the Best Actress Oscar race. And quite frankly if they campaigned Corden in support he’d have a decent chance , but no way in the uber -competitive Bestinto-the-woods-07 Actor Oscar race.  Streep is obviously the strong bet here and she’s a cinch to land her incredible 19th  Oscar nomination, this time in supporting for her wicked(ly) funny and dimensional witch. Pine and Kendrick are standouts too. There can be no question the film will land nominations for Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Dennis Gassner’s Production Design,  the makeup and hair styling and possibly Dion Beebe’s Cinematography.  Sound mixing is always a strong bet for musicals too, often winning.  Of course so is music , but there are no original songs here. The one new tune Sondheim wrote for Meryl Streep was cut from the film as Marshall , Lapine and Sondheim himself felt that once seen in the context of the movie that it simply didn’t move the story along.  I remember speaking to Streep about it when she came to do my screening series last year for August Osage County  and she told me it was a highlight of her life to record that song of Sondheims.  Perhaps it will be in the DVD extras, but it means no Oscar nomination for Sondheim  , a previous Oscar winner for another Disney film  , Dick Tracy. 

The real question remains whether Into the Woods can become a serious Best Picture  and Director contender.  Musicals have a spotty record . Sure Marshall’s 2002 Chicago won but he was overlooked for Director , losing to The Pianists’ Roman Polanski even after he won the DGA award. Before that it had been Disney Logo34 years since the last Best Picture Musical winner, Oliver!  in 1968. I like its chances for a nomination but then again i remain stunned that Disney’s terrific Saving Mr. Banks didn’t make the cut last year and  landed only a single nomination for its music score (Disney , outside of its Miramax days, has never actually had a home-grown Best Picture winner). And keep in mind though Into The Woods did win a handful of Tonys in 1987 for its Score and Book, it was steamrolled in the Best Musical category by the still  running  The Phantom Of The Opera,  which was ironically turned into a flop film , a fate that I am confident won’t happen here.  This film should have great family boxoffice appeal for its perfectly timed Christmas Day release, but will be competing with yet another film version of Annie  for family  Musical lovers.  Other than his Dick Tracy song Sondheim’s big Oscar moment came early in his career when West Side Story won ten Academy Awards , still the biggest haul for a musical in Oscar history. We’ll have to wait and see in this still wide open year where this one lands.

Pete Hammond

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