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Months of Meryl: Into the Woods (2014)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep.  

#48 —The Witch, a witch.

JOHN: In his reserved review of the original 1987 Broadway production of Into the Woods, Frank Rich summed up the plot of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s beloved musical as such: “Cinderella and company travel into a dark, enchanted wilderness to discover who they are and how they might grow up and overcome the eternal, terrifying plight of being alone.” Rich noted that, “in remaking Grimm stories, Mr. Sondheim's lyrics and Mr. Lapine's book tap into the psychological mother lode from which so much of life and literature spring.” Sondheim and Lapine’s dextrous, intertwined reimagining of classic Grimm fairy tales, from Little Red Riding Hood to Cinderella, offers a subversively adult version of these hallowed childhood fables and an artistic vision that seems fundamentally at odds with family-friendly Disney, the machine behind Rob Marshall’s 2014 screen translation.

When unhappy fans pressed Sondheim upon the film’s release to defend what felt like a compromised adaptation, he admitted that concessions were in fact happily made to secure a PG rating...

Disney executives’ had concerns about the more mature moments in the story, like the lascivious Big Bad Wolf, Rapunzel’s death, and the suggestive lyrics of the seduction number “Any Moment.” “You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the [Baker’s Wife]… You know, if I were a Disney executive I probably would say the same thing,” Sondheim confessed. Such reworkings and omissions contribute to an overall sense of limitation and an unfortunate bend toward cliché, the film version of this celebrated musical effectively a filter for the more daring and provocative streaks in the latter’s inventive libretto.

Though compromised and dulled for the mass-market megaplex, Into the Woods is nonetheless an entertaining two-hour divertissement featuring some impressive set pieces and spirited performances. On different missions and propelled by personal desires, characters like Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), the Baker (James Corden), and his wife (Emily Blunt) become entangled with one another in the woods as they attempt to find love, escape danger, make trades, and, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Baker, lift a spell cast by the Witch (Meryl Streep), that will finally allow them to bear children. Many years ago, the Witch placed a curse on the Baker after she caught his father stealing greens from her garden. To reverse the curse and lift the spell, the Witch lays out a challenge for the couple: gather four ingredients for one of her magic potions, i.e. a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

Streep’s ghastly witch catapults herself into the musical’s admittedly virtuoustic 16-minute prologue like a patient finally released from psychiatric care. Her manic, batshit witch pops out of trees, vanishes into thin air, and taunts characters like a rabid dog on the loose, whether playing the antagonist to the Baker and his wife or shielding her “adopted” daughter Rapunzel from the horrors of the real world. Like Sister Aloysius in gothic drag, Streep’s performance is a big, broad plunge into unchecked caricature; she turns the Witch into a perfect vessel for her late-career swerve toward outsized, hammed-up, attention-grabbing roles. If you abandon all logic and just accept that this is Streep’s audition for Drag Race, it can be momentarily fun to watch her bark at Corden and Blunt, exorcise herself into a lather, or get in some face-touching with those decaying, elongated fingernails.

Streep has continually proven incapable of being truly evil on screen, but thankfully this film doesn’t require a witch as wicked as Margaret Hamilton or Anjelica Huston or any of the sorceresses lurking in Suspiria’s coven. Streep’s Witch, like all of her more villainous characters, harbors a deeper hurt and longing that informs her backstory, revealed here in her act two “Lament.” Streep does what she can with her limited screen time by doing the most, delivering a performance at once intriguing but also occasionally embarrassing.

Were you bewitched or befuddled? Take us through some of Streep’s choice scenes.

MATTHEW: I so wish we could have seen Streep-as-Madeline Ashton-as the Witch. Here, Streep possesses too little of the fierce diva realness that this particular conception of the character warrants, and that stage interpreters as varied as Bernadette Peters, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa L. Williams, and Donna Murphy exuded in spades. But there’s also too little of the emotional intelligence that the actress usually excels at manifesting in even the smallest of parts. Such intelligence is only realized here in the moving marriage of Corden and the absolutely wonderful Blunt, who is completely confident in her charisma and quickly emerges as the true MVP of Marshall’s Disneyfied adaptation. Streep, on the other hand, mostly seems unsure of her own approach, which is perhaps why her acting style changes as much as her accent, vacillating between grim solemnity and Borscht Belt comedy. She never brings anything as specific and archetype-enhancing to this role as Blunt’s perky and pliable naturalism, Huttlestone’s saucer-eyed sweetness, or Chris Pine’s sexy clownery as Cinderella’s vainglorious Prince.

Instead, Streep plays the Witch as an elderly neighborhood kook in one scene and a tepid glamour puss in the next. Streep, joined in this ensemble by BFFs Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman, probably had a ball during the shoot, but the inventive merrymaking that has enhanced many a Streep performance is seldom evident on screen. Even when covered in J. Roy Helland’s unrivaled prosthetics and Colleen Atwood’s fine-enough frocks, Streep still seems like she is workshopping her ideas for the character with little input behind the camera from Marshall, whose vision of Sondheim’s allegory only becomes more unengaging and extreme in its earnestness when surely some sly cynicism might have helped. Although constructed with vastly greater craft, so many of the Witch’s scenes in Into the Woods resemble Mamma Mia!’s “The Winner Takes It All” number, in which Streep strenuously pantomimes on the edge of a cliff, left to her own devices and forced to fend for herself by lazy directors who assume that Streep’s virtuosity will pick up their slack.

And sometimes it does.

The portrait of love and nurturing that Streep fosters in her scenes with Mackenzie Mauzy’s Rapunzel is more rewarding than the one of envy and malice that we see everywhere else. It’s poignant to watch Streep push against the ceiling of her own considerable vocal abilities during “Stay With Me,” cutting through this cautionary lullaby to give cracked and thundering urgency to a mother’s despairing plea for companionship. Her vocal work elsewhere is less commanding, least of all in the Witch’s iconic entrance, where Streep attempts to pass off Sondheim’s quasi-raps as punchy lines of dialogue, rather than leaning into their rapid, rhythmic quality. And it’s unfortunate that Streep has to compete with a slew of special effects and overbearing sound work to make much of an individual impression during the fuck-you of “Last Midnight,” which Disney’s butchering deletion of Rapunzel’s death robs of its crucial character motivation. “Last Midnight” is one of the great musical theater kiss-offs and should have easily paved the way for a fiery, Streepian tour de force.

But Into the Woods tells a tale that we’ve heard countless times throughout this series, that of an artist’s unequaled talent being badly misused, though never depleted, by directors who mistake their own genuine admiration for close collaboration. These filmmakers seem to do nothing more than stand back and watch Streep with the same slack-jawed awe that she inspires in so many of us, content enough to be in her company and forgetting to shape or challenge her creativity, permitting their film — and their idol’s performance — to suffer in the process.

Next week: Ricki & The Flash

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Reader Comments (31)

She is the best thing in the movie adaptation and many thought so in 2014. Sorry- we will have to disagree this time. And no mention that this is her 19th Oscar nomination? If anything she is limited by the censored Disney script. And still once again she saves the overall production.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

And something tells me you will really hate her performance in MPR!

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

She would have had my vote for Supporting Actress in 2014, but kind of by default. Since the Academy failed to nominate Tilda Swinton, Rene Russo, Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts and Imelda Staunton (just to stick to actresses with precursor nominations), all of whom were better, she led the pack of actual nominees. She reallyseems to be having a ball, and it's infectious.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

I'm surprised this made as much money as it did—I guess the PG rating and Disney marketing helped. I don't remember any of my friends seeing or discussing it at the time.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

I just happened to have watched three-quarters of this on Starz last night, after not having seen it since the theatrical run. I recalled that Emily Blunt was the best thing in it, and sure enough, during the outstanding "Moments in the Woods" I suddenly thought, "And THAT'S why she's playing Mary Poppins!"

I think Meryl is okay... the huge problems with the Disneyfied adaptation, its too-broad and dumbed-down approach, and its ridiculously overwrought special effects are what really derail the film. No, she's not Donna Murphy or Bernadette Peters, but she's far from the worst casting/performance here. I mean, the film functions well enough as an introduction to the musical, but it's nearly as Into The Woods-lite as the one-hour/just act one kids version.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

Right there with y'all on this. Kind of a mess of a performance in a mess of a film. I'd forgotten that she was Oscar-nominated for it, but then I agree with ken s. that 2014 wasn't a strong year for that category (although I liked Emma Stone's work, but then I usually do). It's really a shame that neither Swinton nor Russo was among the nominees.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

Meryl was mostly Meh in this entertaining but flawed film (I give it a B-). I feel this was one of those years where she got a nomination more for Being Meryl than the actual performance.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I quite liked her performance in Into the Woods. She acted the hell out of it and nailed the Rap. I also remember really being impressed by her Last Midnight. Her prior work didn't suggest she had the belt for it and then she showed she had the chops for it (at least to get it right in the studio). It was a solid leading turn in an okay adaptation of an amazing show.

I also remember beating the drum that if they wanted to nominate someone for supporting actress in Into the Woods, Tracey Ullman was Right. There. giving a performance as Jack's Mother that landed every joke and still made you care in her final scene. And, you know, it was actually a supporting role and not the Witch in Into the Woods.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I'd say this is my personal best Nomination of the decade. There, I said it.
She was amazing and really KILLS it with Last Midnight. I get goosebumps just thinking About how powerful she sang it. My winner.
Color me surprised ITW ended up as a Disney movie though. Isn't Sondheim quite critical and picky about if and how his Musicals are adapted to the screen?And even clearly mor harmless... it stays quite a dark movie with a quite not-so-happy-ending.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Streep is decent but the film is positively dreadful and she's unable to lift it in any meaningful way.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

When Jared Leto made a joke about her nomination I hink most felt this as a nomination too far nominated just for being Meryl and any other actress would have been more interesting.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I saw some of it and I didn't like it. Then again, I'm not really fond of Rob Marshall as a director. I just find his work to be mediocre.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

She was fine in the role, but no one can top Bernadette Peters amazing performance in the original role on Broadway. How she didn’t even earn a Tony nomination is beyond me!
I have the DVD of the performance by the original cast and much prefer it over the theatrical Disney version.

Also randomly noted: “Streep” is an anagram of “Peters.” Odd huh?

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fremen

Meryl was fine in this. I think her version of "I'm Checking Out" is still my favorite of her movie songs.

But overall, I'm still pissed with Rob Marshall cutting out the Agony reprise, denying me the opportunity to spend more time with the adorable Chris and Billy. The princes, and Emily Blunt, were MVPs of this 'just okay' movie.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPam

“Last Midnight” WAS a Streepian tour-de-force. And Viola Davis’ daughter agrees with me.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

I think she's horrendous in the movie. I also hate the hair, the dress and the makeup.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Meryl, dear, it's called singing not howling.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDonna M.

A very good movie but the showstopper was Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen singing "Agony"

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Meryl was just meh. Wish they had chosen Vanessa L. Williams, who starred in the Broadway revival and would have earned that Oscar nod.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

The whole ensemble is good (except Depp- we get it Disney, you owe him for no believing in him for the first Pirates movie, but surely you have paid that debt now. He has his own island!) Streep was good, but only good. I remember at the time thinking she was getting all these nominations because she is Streep and people expected greatness. This is before the movie even premiered! She carried that idea all the way to a nomination. But I wouldn;t nominate her. When you have Kendrick bringing the heart, Blunt bringing the laughs, Crawford bringing the energy, Mauzy bringing the tears, and Pine bringing the sexy what is there for her to do? If I had to choose I would pick Crawford as the best performance.

I talked about this earlier on the Naomi Watts post. I would give her the win for Birdman over all the nominees that year. It was not an inspired group of nominated performances.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

I just re-watched this on Halloween and enjoyed it a lot. I did see this in the theatre and loved Chris Pine for "Agony", and was delighted with Streep for "Stay with Me". I'm honestly surprised you didn't enjoy this a little more. The only bad part was Depp, otherwise this is a very entertaining musical.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Jessica Chastain should have gotten the nom and won.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

MPR EW article - Emily Blunt on Meryl Streep
Blunt continues, “I think that it’s been terribly exciting getting to know her. She is somebody who is an inspiration I think to every actor. I certainly find her so inspiring. That defiance she has to keep taking big swings and not conform and not get pigeonholed and not just be one thing or represent just one way of acting. She’s never discovered her whole bag of tricks, and that’s all I want to do, is never to discover that.”

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

I grew up with the recording of the theatrical performance (we have it on laser disc, beta and dvd!), this movie just made me sad sad sad for the generation whose reference for the musical will be this instead.

I wish it'd be common practice to record a performance of every Broadway show.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSanty C.

Streep is the glue that links cinema from 1978-2018. I love her Emily Blunt costar history. I like her crazy witch.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTammy

Love the show. Found the movie OK--not a travesty, but definitely not great. Love Meryl, but not in this. Definitely not nomination-worthy. I was very happy with Arquette winning that year and would have been happy with Dern winning as well. The MVP of Into the Woods was Emily Blunt, and I agree with other posters here who said she should have been nominated.

November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

Meryl Streep was by far the best thing about this movie. The runner up would be the girl who played Little Red Riding Hood. And third, the guy with the late night show and the kid who played Jack. The rest of the main cast are just there doing nothing impressive or annoyed me to no end. It didn't help the movie was beyond dreadful, all over the place and it feels no one knows what they're doing in it. Therefore Rob Marshall should've been a Razzie winner for directing this. Anyway, Streep should stay the eff away from musicals.

November 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

The film really runs out of steam in the second half but I enjoyed it overall. Meryl was entertaining but it's not a major work by any means. Emily Blunt was wonderful, same with Chris Pine and the young boy. Corden needs to be banished from films forever.

November 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEoghan McQ

The non-death of Rapunzel kills it entirely. I think the entire movie would feel so different if that was included. I like it more than more than most people, but that might be because I'm so in love with the source material.

November 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJoey M

Oh, to have been at the reading of one of the early passes at this adaptation in the 90s, featuring Cher as the Witch. Now THAT would have been ideal casting.

November 30, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAustin

Cher as The Witch?

Nah, nobody wants to hear an auto tuned version of Last Midnight, lol.

December 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

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