"Into the Woods," based on the Sondheim musical about fairy-tale characters discovering the down side of happily ever after, was high on my list of anticipated films for ages. All the right people seemed to be involved: Rob Marshall of "Chicago" fame was directing, James Lapine and Steven Sondheim from the original musical were on script and music, and it had a cast full of people who could actually sing. Sure, there were early reports that the story had been toned down to make it more family-friendly, but there were enough reassurances from the key people involved that I wasn't too worried.
And for the first half of the film, everything was going right. Good performances, good adjustments made to the music and the plotting, and the fairy-tale visuals were thankfully restrained. After the overdesigned "Maleficent" and "Oz the Great and Powerful," it was nice to see the CGI effects take a back seat to the characters. Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and Meryl Streep's Witch were my favorites, but everyone fit. The younger actors, Lila Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, were especially impressive delivering Sondheim's rapid-fire lyrics. And it was a relief to find that the darker, more adult moments were largely preserved, if deemphasized. Things felt slightly rushed, but only slightly.
The trouble came when the film moved into the darker second half of the story, which is where Disney lost its nerve. Suddenly there were major musical numbers being cut left and right, story points were horribly muddled, and the feeling of being rushed got much worse. There was a lot of pre-release chatter about one of the major deaths in this act being removed, but at least it had been replaced with an ambiguous fate for the character which arguably worked just as well. Many of the darker endings for other characters that were kept were severely hampered by events happening offscreen, being toned down, or shortened. Terrible events occur, but the impact was often blunted to the point where they felt inconsequential.
All these changes resulted in an extremely rocky second half that was difficult to follow and thematically confusing. The actors carried on valiantly, which mitigated some of the damage, but they could only do so much. I still think "Into the Woods" is worth watching for the excellent first half, but it's such a shame they couldn't follow through.
Much less frustrating is the new Disney animated film "Big Hero 6," based on an obscure Marvel comic book about an Asian-themed superhero team. It has an unusually well-conceived main character, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a kid genius who lacks direction and has a penchant for getting into trouble. Fortunately his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henny) intervenes, and gets him excited about attending a "nerd school" full of inventors and researchers. But Hiro loses Tadashi after a terrible tragedy, and is left with only his brother's final creation, a healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), to help him cope.
This is unusually emotionally fraught territory for Disney, and it gives the typical boy-and-his-robot story some real heft to it. The creators do an excellent job of portraying Hiro's grief and adolescent moodiness, not avoiding the darker parts of his psyche. And Baymax is easily the most original and memorable cinema robot in ages. A big, huggable, inflatable, marshmallow of a bot who looks like he stepped out of a Miyazaki picture, he is a physical comedy goldmine. Easily the best parts of the movie are the scenes of the two of them becoming friends, learning about each other, Hiro upgrading Baymax, and Baymax helping Hiro to heal from his loss.
Unfortunately "Big Hero 6" is also obliged to be a superhero team movie, and that's where the story gets off track a little. The other four heroes are students at Hiro's school, all nicely individuated and well designed. I liked them all fine, but they're so painfully extraneous to the story. I was torn between wanted to know more about them and wishing they were kept in the background, so the film could keep its focus on Hiro and Baymax. The movie tries to do too much, trying to juggle all these characters, origin and revenge plots, lots of spiffy gadgetry, and a mystery villain too. All the pieces work, but it's hard to ignore how cluttered the narrative feels at time, and how quick it all seems to go by.
I so admire the ambition driving this one, though. I love that it takes place in a gorgeous futuristic Tokyo and San Francisco mash-up called San Fransokyo. There are images that only appear for a few seconds on screen I could spend hours looking at to admire all the little details and in-jokes. I wouldn't mind a sequel or two, simply to take advantage of the vast amounts of promising material crammed in here. That could be intentional - many recent animated films are starting to feel like television pilots.
If that's the case here, I'm sold on a "Big Hero 6" series.