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    Dec 19, 2014

    Which Of This Season's Two Big Musicals Should You See In Theaters?

    Annie or Into the Woods? We'll help you decide.

    Sony Pictures Entertainment/Walt Disney Pictures

    Lately, the movie musical has been so much better in animated (Frozen) or realistic (Pitch Perfect) form than as your classic song-and-dance. Maybe it feels too old-fashioned, or too sincere, but movies seem to have forgotten how to handle characters belting out their feelings and, perhaps, indulging in a little choreography. In the last few years, we've had Les Misérables, which featured some strong performances but jarringly had its characters sing right to the camera as if they were all existing in their own individual music videos, and Jersey Boys, a jukebox musical that managed to treat its songs like annoyances to be given as little focus as possible. Black Nativity never figured out how to toggle between its musical numbers and non-musical drama, and Rock of Ages... well, let's not talk about Rock of Ages.

    This holiday season is giving us two new musicals, Will Gluck's remake of Annie and Rob Marshall's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. Neither is a home run — Annie can be rough going despite the adorableness of its lead, while Into the Woods tends toward the dull, though together the two films almost add up to one whole, more complete movie. Chances are, however, that you're not signing on for a double feature, so here's a guide to which one of these you should pick for your holiday viewing purposes.

    Do you like your adaptations faithful?

    Walt Disney Studios

    Then opt for Into the Woods (obvi). While writer James Lapine, who wrote the book for the original stage version, has pruned some songs and some plot, Into the Woods keeps very close in spirit to the fairy tale mash-up that premiered on Broadway in 1987. It's got its stylized forest in which the characters all find themselves, and around it a storybook kingdom of villages and castles, filled with princes and peasants, witches and children whose paths all intertwine.

    Annie plucks its story of an orphan who gets taken in by a billionaire from the Depression era and plunks it down in the present day, altering some songs and adding a few new ones, and incidentally and without ceremony having the two main characters be played by black actors (Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx). The update works better in theory than in practice — the cozy capitalist fable aspect of the story fits better in the more abstract past, and making Daddy Warbucks, now Will Stacks, a cell phone czar capable of tracking anyone is thoroughly creepy. There are some clever touches, though — the premiere that Will and Annie attend is now of a YA movie called MoonQuake Lake, and the clips we see of it are packed with amusing cameos.

    Are you like, Sondheim who?

    Barry Wetcher/CTMG

    See Annie. Into the Woods may have a passionate following, but the screen adaptation yields no standout or memorable songs — the best number is the prologue, in which the many characters sing about their places in life and their longings. Annie mangles some of its numbers — the reworked "Little Girls," performed by Cameron Diaz, in particular — but it's got songs that will be recognizable to non-musical theater devotees, like "Tomorrow" and "It's the Hard Knock Life," even if Wallis' voice isn't always up to them.

    Is acting a priority here?

    Walt Disney Studios

    Head Into the Woods. Wallis has incandescent charisma, but Annie never really figures out what it's title character is like beyond "spunky" — she's left grinning fetchingly for the camera rather than performing a lot of the time. Diaz plays Ms. Hannigan, now a '90s music never-was, as gratingly outsized, while Foxx underplays Will and generally can't find a way to make the role endearing. Rose Byrne is charmingly awkward as Grace, though there's not a whiff of romantic chemistry between her and Will, while Bobby Cannavale, as a manipulative political adviser, is the only one of the main cast who hits the right level of ostentatiousness.

    Into the Woods fares better — it has Meryl Goddamn Streep, who's actually a little bit too much as the Witch, as well as surprise MVP Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife. Anna Kendrick's very good as the noncommittal Cinderella, while Chris Pine is wonderfully hammy as Cinderella's Prince. Not everyone impresses — new Late Late Show host James Corden is a noticeable weak point — but the cast, overall, seems much more comfortable.

    Do you find vaguely pedophilic scenes disturbing?

    Barry Wetcher/CTMG

    Pick Annie. Seriously. Through an amazing force of will, Annie is able to pretend that the modern-day public would love the idea of a grown bachelor moving a little girl into his house. Will temporarily rescues Annie from her place in Hannigan's grim foster home and installs her in his luxurious penthouse because he's been convinced it'll be good publicity. That he's indeed celebrated for this instead of immediately being ripped to shreds on social media attests to the fact that Annie takes place in an alternate universe that only looks like our own.

    Into the Woods ends up winning the prize for creepiness by casting young Lilla Crawford (who actually played Annie in the 2012 Broadway revival) as Red Riding Hood. Crawford's great in the part, but she also still looks like a child, and the film doesn't really tone down the suggestiveness of her encounter with a leering Johnny Depp as the Wolf ("Think of that scrumptious carnality," he sings). It's a seduction scene, and even operating as a metaphor (the Wolf's looking to eat Red Riding Hood, not eat Red Riding Hood), it's startlingly off-putting.

    Do you like looking at pretty things?

    Walt Disney Studios

    Into the Woods it is. (And we're not talking cast members here.) Into the Woods is definitely the handsomer production, painstakingly art directed, costumed, and lit to present a world that's just the right amount of stylized, the woods themselves shifting seamlessly from welcoming to ominous over the course of a day. Beanstalks burst from from the ground, palace steps become stages for musical contemplation, and towers are nestled in verdant clearings, where they hold long-haired princesses who've been kept apart from the world. It's admittedly less ambitious in what it’s doing — presenting a storybook landscape — than Annie, which aims to reinvent a story that’s practically iconic. But Annie ends up bright but also flat-looking, its New York resembling a commercial more than an actual place, complete with product placement. Like its main character, the city has such a cheery coating that Annie scarcely seems to need her move up the economic ladder — even the foster home she shares with a few other girls is Friends-apartment roomy.

    Are you going to the movies with a child?

    Barry Wetcher/CTMG

    Definitely go with Annie. And not just because it has a kid as a main character. Some of the stage version's darker twists may have been excised from Into the Woods, but it's still a story that reaches its happy ending halfway through, then keeps going, shaking up and subverting any neat conclusions. It's talky, allowing a lot of what would be flashier action (like the eating and subsequent rescuing of Red Riding Hood, or what's to be found up the beanstalk) to take place off screen. And Marshall's staging of the musical is curiously inert, its energy drying up as it goes along, until it drifts to a end.

    Annie may flail all over the place, but it does have a spark of life to it, despite its other shortcomings. It's sugary, sure, but then so was the 1982 Aileen Quinn version that etched the story and songs onto the brains of a whole generation of moviegoers. And the opening scene, in which Wallis takes over after a nod to the red-headed Annies of the past, really does feel moving, as she takes off after class and runs through the streets of New York. The movie may not serve up anything revolutionary, but Wallis does for a second, just by looking so familiar and so new at once.

    Annie is now in theaters. Into the Woods opens on Dec. 25.

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