Into the Woods (2014) is a remake of the original musical by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), this musical is based on the Grimm Brothers fairy tales of Jack and The Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. The film boasts an all-star ensemble cast including Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp and Anna Kendrick.
Similar to the Love Actually intertwined story genre, the film depicts a large variety of characters in a magical kingdom, all linked by their desire for something more: “I Wish”. Basically the witch (Meryl Streep) wants to again look young and beautiful-and the only possible way is to drink a potion made of magical ingredients. For each item on the list, there is a character that cherishes it and is therefore unwilling to part with it, hence the complication of the story. The Witch makes a deal with a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt): If they collect the items, she will undo the curse she put on the bakers father years ago, which is keeping the family childless. Oh and the items all need to be found by the Midnight in three day times. The items include:
- The cow as white as milk (The milk-less cow named Milky White which is Jack’s only friend)
- The cape as red as blood (Owned by Little Red Riding hood)
- The hair as yellow as corn (Presumed to be Rapunzel’s hair…or not)
- The slipper as pure as gold (Worn by Cinderella)
Throughout this story, the baker and his wife navigate the treacherous woods, attempting to negotiate their way to owning the objects they need. On the way we also encounter a thousand other musically driven plot lines. After about an hour, they get the objects they need, the witch is young again, and everything seems dandy at Cinderella’s wedding… before it’s discovered that a Giantess, driven here by Jack, is out to kill him, taking down everyone in his path. The characters then group together to defeat the giant before ending the story with the Narrator (the baker) beginning to retell the story to his new family.
Despite the similar characters, this is no Disney movie. The writers James Lapine and Steven Sondheim create a dark world that does not shrink away from showing the harsh realities of life. Similar to Roald Dahls dark take on fairy tales, the script is quite candid in its brutality. Lines like “And the wolf swallowed her in one bite” or “The stepmother cut off her daughter’s toes” emphasis the Narrators matter-of-fact perspective on these fairy-tales.
Every character was well cast and gave an excellent performance. Meryl Streep was wonderful as the witch, giving humanity to a usually one sided character. Anna Kendrick was a joy to watch as Cinderella and her admirable vocal range made her scenes a success. Emily Blunt and James Cordens characters had an amusing onscreen banter, and Blunts performance was very strong in showing her characters longing for a child. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone were very suited to their roles of Red Riding hood and Jack, however Huttlestone’s strong cockney accent sometimes drowned out the lyrics. Christina Baranski was a fabulous evil stepmother, despite little screen time, and the two step-sisters were very good also. Johnny Depps depiction of the creepy wolf was spot on. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen perfectly typified the vain and pompous prince- their melodramatic performance of “Agony” was highly entertaining and a highlight of the film.
The production design (Dennis Garner) is very well done, perfectly capturing the eeriness of the woods, and the old-in-day farm houses. The music and lyrics is beautiful and unique- I love the overlapping voices in the opening song “Into the Woods” and the fast spoken melody “Your Fault”. However the sheer number of songs took away the significance of each, and one often thought “Oh not another song”.
Like all multi-story films, there is the risk that the script will get too complicated and long and that felt like it happened here. Despite its comparatively average length of 120 minutes, it felt like it dragged on a lot. Perhaps this was because the entire film was leading up to the witch transforming and the bakers getting their baby, and once it was clear that that was not the end, it was a bit of a letdown. The wedding of Cinderella and her Prince seemed like a pleasant conclusion…until an evil Giantess descends from the sky and starts destroying the kingdom. At this stage in the movie it felt like we were wrapping up and thus felt a bit late to introduce another significant complication.
Overall, it just felt like too many storylines to keep track of. The Rapunzel-Witch-Prince storyline, although useful in displaying the witch’s maternal love, seemed unnecessary and did not receive enough screen time to develop into anything interesting. The 10 minute scene of the Bakers Wife being seduced by the Prince also seemed superfluous, serving only to depict the wife as ditsy and the prince as a promiscuous dick (which we knew already).
A recent trend in society, is that people are learning their moral lessons from movies, not churches. This concept is very evident in Into the Woods and a major contributor to the length of the film was that the seemed to be attempting to cram as many moral life lessons as they could. This is obvious when the gang are about to kill the giant, when Red Riding Hood suddenly faces a moral dilemma about murdering another living thing. Everyone then sings a song about it (No One is Alone) and then she’s fine again. Other Examples of unnecessary life lessons include;
- That the “fairy-tale ending” is not always realistic (Cinderella and her prince)
- That fathers can take care of children just as well as the mothers (baker and his wife)
- That people die and life goes on (Several characters I won’t mention for spoilers)
Although it was refreshing to have a realistic take on the fairy-tale ending, Into the Woods overdid it a bit. I can’t really explain why Into the Woods was such a disappointment, at the opening scene I felt very excited. A great score, a stellar cast, what could go wrong? But as the film progressed it felt like it was alternating between slow dialogue scenes and brief interesting musical scenes. Despite strong performances and some great songs, the movie ultimately lacked that “something”. The long and complicated storylines, the smack-you-in-the-face symbolism and moral teachings and a lack of editing prevented this film from reaching its potential. Despite these disappointments, it is still an enjoyable film and great for a fun family film.