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INTO THE WOODS (2014) (Blu-ray)

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IntotheWoodscoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Not really
2014, 125 min., Color
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer/Amazon link

I was surprised to see that more than 52,000 readers at the Internet Movie Database collectively rated Disney’s Into the Woods a mere 6.2 out of 10. And at Rotten Tomatoes, only 53 percent of some 85,000 viewers liked it. Obviously, these were people more familiar with the Disney formula than the Broadway musical penned by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, because the film version stays pretty true to the theatrical production.

In fact, despite the addition of greater visual depth and special effects, Disney’s Into the Woods has a very staged feel to it, except that the actors aren’t consciously playing to the audience. We’re not talking about the insertion of occasional songs, either. Like an operetta, Into the Woods features plenty of monologues and conversations that are sung rather than spoken. It’s a very theatrical film, in other words, and I can see where, if you’re not expecting that, it could throw you for a loop.

So could the encroachment of serious themes and an ending that undercuts the fairytale notion of happily-ever-after. You and your family may find yourself tearing up, and that’s almost unheard of with a Disney film. In the past, there may have been weepy Bambi’s mother and Old Yeller moments, but all was usually well that ended well. There’s a difference between a happy ending and a hard-earned optimism that reinforces the old adage about making lemonade when life gives you lemons, and it’s the latter that audiences encounter when they travel vicariously Into the Woods.

Disney’s film version may be rated PG, but the emotional content may make the film appropriate only for children old enough to understand and accept what was repackaged in The Lion King as “The Circle of Life.” If they can handle The Lion King, they can handle this. But they have to love live theater and musicals to love Disney’s Into the Woods. It’s that simple. They also need to be able to understand the basic premise, which is an intricate weave of familiar fairytales.

Everybody wants something, which is what the cast sings about in the long, opening title song that begins, “I Wish.” It might help to share ahead of time with smaller children that Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairytales, and that we jump from tale to tale and character to character.

The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) desperately want a child, and the witch next door who had put a curse on their family (Meryl Streep in her Oscar-nominated role) offers them a way to do that: they must bring her a milky white cow (from the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale), a slipper of gold (from the Cinderella fairytale), a blood-red cape (from the Red Riding Hood fairytale), and hair as yellow as corn (from the Rapunzel fairytale).

All the characters go into the woods: Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent by his mother (Tracy Ullman) to sell the cow, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes there to talk to her dead mother and receive the gift of fine clothes that will allow her to attend the ball, Little Red (Lilla Crawford) skips to her grandmother’s house deep in the woods, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) rebels against her witchy mother by secretly seeing a prince, the baker and his wife try to acquire their objects, and the giant and giant’s wife from Jack and the Beanstalk eventually wreak havoc.   More

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INTO THE WOODS (1987) (Blu-ray)

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IntotheWoodscoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
1987, 153 min., Color
Not rated (would be PG for several intense sequences)
Image Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: None
Opening song (audio only) 

 Into the Woods is a strange musical that’s about to get even stranger this Christmas when Disney’s film version debuts with Johnny Depp as the wolf and Meryl Streep as the witch. But if you want to see the original Broadway production that inspired it, James Lapine does a nice job of filming a performance from the show’s initial 1987 run, with camerawork that pulls in tight for plenty of medium shots that give the stage production a filmic feel—especially since there are no audience reaction shots. It’s a technically accomplished film version of a real Broadway production.

Into the Woods earned Bernadette Peters a Tony Award for Best Actress and statues as well for Stephen Sondheim (Best Score) and Lapine (Best Book). You can see why. There are a few catchy songs, but you won’t walk away singing the score the way you might with something like Frozen. In weaving together the stories of Cinderella, Jack and his mother (and the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, Lapine uses the witch as a lynch pin and Sondheim creates song after song that mimics the narrative structure with its high level of discordance and overlapping and interwoven sung lines. That’s one thing that makes this Broadway musical distinctive, and one thing that adds a level of sophistication that might push it beyond the comfort zone of some younger viewers.

What makes Into the Woods strange is that after a first act that playfully pokes fun of children’s fairy tales while at the same time celebrating them, a second act deconstructs the whole idea of fairytale endings by introducing darker elements . . . certain to become even darker in the 2014 film, given Hollywood’s recent forays into fairy tales. Not that the first half is rosy-cheeked and cheery, mind you. Cinderella’s stepmother cuts off parts of her daughters’ feet so that the prince detects they’re not the real deal because of the blood that drips into the golden slipper (only a cartoon character can wear a GLASS slipper). And the wolf’s stomach is cut open so the Red Riding Meal he ingested can escape unharmed. In other words, this fairytale mash-up can be pretty Grimm in an “ewwww” sort of way, despite the infusion of humor at every turn.   More

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (Blu-ray)

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YankeeDoodleDandycoverGrade: A-
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
1942, 125 min., Black and white
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be G despite brief WWI montage)
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features: C
Trailer

John Travolta and I have at least one thing in common: Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of our favorite movies growing up. Maybe that’s because we’re Baby Boomers, and we were raised with postwar patriotism, much of which was reflected in the movies that Hollywood made.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the top musical biopics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and it has an unbelievable backstory. But just as unbelievable is that this four-star movie about Broadway sensation George M. Cohan doesn’t interest the rest of my family. My wife, who’s not a Baby Boomer, thinks it’s only okay, and my kids find the flag-waving corny, the Vaudeville sequences otherworldly, and the black-and-white picture the last straw. But if your family is into old-time biopics, Yankee Doodle Dandy is one of the best, and it has an interesting history.

At least one good thing came out of the Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. James Cagney, popular for his gangster roles, had to fly to Washington, D.C. to defend himself against charges that he was a Communist. Though he set the committee straight, afterwards his brother told him, “We have to make the damnedest patriotic picture ever.” Cagney’s very next film would be Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biography of Broadway sensation George M. Cohan, who was honored by President Roosevelt and Congress for composing the patriotic anthems “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Ironically, Yankee Doodle Dandy would also earn Cagney his only Oscar for Best Actor.   More

MUPPETS MOST WANTED (Blu-ray combo)

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MuppetsMostWantedcoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes

2014, 107 and 124 min., Color
Disney
Rated PG for some mild action
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
Trailer

With The Muppets (2011), Disney breathed new life into a near-dead franchise by infusing it with self-reflexive jokes and getting back to the clever writing, memorable songs, and manic energy that made Jim Henson’s marionette-puppets a hit in the first place.

Though Muppets Most Wanted follows a more familiar screenplay formula, the gags are still there, the trio of humans—Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and Ty Burrell—seems brilliantly cast, and the songs, though they don’t stick in your head, are still engaging. Our entire family thought this 2014 sequel was funny and entertaining, and we’re getting close to the point where we’ll no longer have children under the age of 13. Don’t be put off by the PG rating. With apologies to Animal, it’s a pretty tame film, and families with young children should find this just as rewarding for a family movie night.   More

THE RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN COLLECTION (Blu-ray)

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R&HcoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: Yes (well, two-thirds, at least)
1945-1965, 838 min. (6 films), Color
20th Century Fox
Rated G
Aspect ratios: 1.37:1, 2.55:1, 2.20:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1, DTS-HD MA 5.1, DTS-HD MA 4.0, DTS-HD MA Mono
Bonus features: B-

Rodgers & Hammerstein are Broadway legends, having won a total of 34 Tony Awards for their work. They’ve done all right with film adaptations, too, earning 15 Academy Awards. So if you’re a fan of old musicals and want to share that with your children, it might be tempting to pick up this collection. But don’t do it because you think it will be a good resource should your children get a part in a future high school musical. According to The Broadway Scoop, not one Rodgers & Hammerstein musical ranks among the Top 10 Musicals currently being performed by high schools.

Does that mean they’re dated, or as corny as Kansas in August? Some of them, yes. For that reason, it might be better to wait (right now four out of six are only available through this collection) to buy these titles individually, rather than as an eight-disc, six-film collection, because while two of the films are surefire winners and two are entertaining-enough slices of rural Americana to where they will be of marginal interest to younger viewers, the remaining two musicals feature topics that won’t engage children much.

The King and I and The Sound of Music, with 10 Oscars between them, are the most likely to have wide family appeal. They’re colorful spectacles, and both of them have a large cast of children that will interest young ones.

Set in the 1860s, The King and I features Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, who, in his desire to become a more “scientific” ruler, has decided to educate himself and to hire a teacher to instruct his many children. Deborah Kerr is the English widow who arrives with her son and falls in love with the children (as we do). Audiences also love the give-and-take sparring between her and the KingandIscreenking, while everyone around him is so fearful of his authority. She helps him put on a state dinner for visiting western dignitaries to prove he’s no barbarian, and he charms her with his own grace and gratitude. The costumes are lavish, the songs are wonderfully catchy—like “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance,” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune”—and they have core messages that will resonate, even with children. The ending is sad and it might take some discussion to frame it for your youngest, but The King and I still has wide appeal. Unfortunately, the film isn’t out on Blu-ray except in this collection.

The Sound of Music is already available as a stand-alone Blu-ray title, and in fact if your family likes bonus features the stand-alone is the better buy. That’s because the second disc of bonus features on the stand-alone is not included in this set—an unfortunate omission. But the film is a triumph. It overwhelmed audiences from the start with its story of the von Trapp family singers, who fled Austria for Switzerland during the Nazi occupation.

SoundofMusicscreenExteriors were shot on location, so there’s a beautiful authenticity to complement a storyline that’s classic: a woman studying to be a nun (Julie Andrews) doesn’t seem particularly suited to the convent and is sent to serve as governess to the children of a widowed Austrian captain (Christopher Plummer). There, she reintroduces song into the household, becomes beloved to the children, and falls in love with her employer. How do you solve a problem like Maria? Especially when she becomes part of a romantic triangle in this blended family tale set against the backdrop of war? The songs are some of the best that Rodgers & Hammerstein ever produced, including “Maria,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and a song written especially for the film that’s so convincing as a national anthem that it almost brings tears to your eyes when Capt. von Trapp leads the crowd at the Salzburg music festival in a chorus, right in front of Nazi officials. It’s as stirring a moment as those dueling national anthems in Casablanca.   More

MARY POPPINS (50th Anniv. Ed. Blu-ray combo)

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MaryPoppinscoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  Yes
1964, 139 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
Disney
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: B+
Trailer

Mary Poppins stands with The Wizard of Oz as one of the all-time great children’s films adapted from books, and one reason is certainly the memorable music.  Richard and Robert Sherman won an Oscar for Best Original Score, which included that long and hard-to-spell word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” Best Song Oscar winner “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “I Love to Laugh,” and Disney’s personal favorite, “Feed the Birds.”

Mary Poppins also won an Oscar for Special Visual Effects, blending traditional painted cell animation with cutting-edge audio-animatronics, stop-motion animation, reverse filming, sophisticated wire work, and sodium vapor screens (for combining live-action with cartoon characters). And those effects look oh-so-much-better on Blu-ray than I expected, given how the HD treatment exposed the live action/animation magic in Pete’s Dragon. Disney, whose 20-year attempt to obtain the rights to the P.L. Travers books to make a film he had promised his daughter, would have been delighted with this release. And we’re talking about someone who was hands-on throughout the process.  More

SHREK THE MUSICAL (Blu-ray combo)

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ShrektheMusicalcoverGrade:  B
Entire family:  Yes
2012, 130 min., Color
Rated PG for some rude humor and adult talk
Dreamworks-Fox
Aspect ratio:  1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, UV copy
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

Since most people can’t get to a Broadway play, watching a filmed performance like Shrek the Musical is the closest they’ll come.

Tightly framed and with numerous close-ups and medium shots, Shrek the Musical makes you feel as if you’ve got a front-row seat. Because those close-ups and quick cuts from camera to camera are the only ways in which the filmmakers can bring a sense of the cinematographic to the production, it would have been tempting to go overboard. But fans of theater can rest assured that there are plenty of long shots that capture the full spectacle.

Like The Lion King, the plot of this musical is so familiar that any real variety depends upon the casting decisions, the performances, and the costuming and props.

Open your Playbill and you’ll see that the Broadway cast features Brian d’Arcy (Smash, Game Change) as Shrek, Sutton Foster (Bunheads) as Fiona, Christopher Sieber (Two of a Kind) as Lord Farquaad, and Daniel Breaker (Limitless) as Donkey.

I’m not surprised that the musical won a Tony for costuming. When the guards or the fairy tale characters crowd the stage it’s the kind of colorful extravaganza that attracts families to shows like this. But I wasn’t terribly impressed with the design or choreography of the dragon. In fact, as with The Lion King, I much prefer the animated version.  More

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