Into the Woods *1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Johnny Depp
Written by: James Lapine (screenplay), based on the musical written by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by: Rob Marshall
It would generally be unfair for me to be the one to critique a musical. I’ve never understood the off-putting way musical characters break into song from seemingly nothing. However, having been exposed to more of them over the years, including brilliant films like Singin’ In the Rain, I’ve developed a reluctant appreciation for some of them. Some musicals are centered, have distinctive songs instead of lines delivered as music, and manage to distinguish themselves as cinematic, and not simply a stage retread.
Keeping that in mind, no specific qualifier is really necessary for Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods. The second trailer showed such promise, wrapped around the theme of ‘innocence lost’. The film is an entirely different monster. It fails as a musical and a movie, somehow managing to play for over two hours yet devoid of fun, sensibility, and order. I know all the cool kids are attempting crossovers and team-ups these days, but the overlay of multiple fairy tale stories muddles this film. Perhaps the mature themes and subject material work better as a Broadway musical, and live performances gloss over the more sinister overtones. Perhaps the tangled mess of musical numbers works better when they’re belted out in front of a live audience. Perhaps Marshall had difficulty finding the movie. Whatever the truth behind why it failed, it most certainly did, to the tune of one of 2014’s most miserable cinematic experiences.
Despite multiple introductions and various story arcs, the plot really centers around the baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). They cannot have children, so it seems, but have always blamed themselves. As it turns out, a curse was placed on their house by a neighboring witch (Streep), who’s so bent out of shape about the theft of her garden that she overreacts. I’ll risk it and say that no “greens” were stolen, and instead she was angry at the father for romancing, but not loving her. She’s so angry that she even sings about how the father ‘raped’ her garden. The ever-so-reasonable witch offers to reverse the curse, provided the couple go on a silly journey to gather the necessary items to create a ‘potion’. (spoiler alert- there is no ‘potion’) The couple must go (wait for it) into the woods for these items, or at least they choose to. The plot, various songs, and even the title requires it.
The couple crosses paths with a number of other characters living their own ‘fairy tales’. We have Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford), a precocious pre-teen on the way to her grandmother’s house who cannot seem to ‘stay on the path’, and runs into a ravenous wolf (Depp). There’s Cinderella (Kendrick), who badly wants to attend the king’s festival, but of course her wicked step-family works to keep her away. We also have Jack (Huttlestone), who loves his family’s milky-white cow and cannot resist climbing beanstalks. Rapunzel (Mauzy) lets down her long golden hair so her prince (Magnussen) can romance her but not bother to whip up an escape route. All of these sad sacks are required by the plot to enter these woods, where evil lurks, and bad decisions prevail. After considerable thought on the matter, I cannot tell if the music is what prevents me from caring after the character introductions, or the story itself. Likely a hint of both. The only one who seems to know what movie he should be in is Prince Charming (Pine). His charisma, coupled with a surprisingly inoffensive English accent, is the one true strong performance I can point to from the sea of talent present.
Instead of the story that I don’t care for, let me focus on why the movie fails. For one, there is something altogether vile and reprehensible about the film’s sinister and confusing overtones. Is this a movie for children (rated PG) or adults? Singing gleefully doesn’t erase the seriousness inherent in the film’s adult themes. We’re treated to not-so-symbolic overtones of pedophilia, murder, rape, theft, barrenness, poverty, fear of fatherhood, infidelity, and even body torture. Naturally, I’m aware that these themes are present in the tales from whence they came, but there is no doubt that the way in which they are presented in the film is a stark contrast to the PG rating. Never one to be a prude, I’m astounded that Into the Woods was not only given the lesser rating, but was clearly marketed as a family film, under the deceptive guise of Disney, musicals, and the holiday film season. Perhaps, as I stated earlier, this material works better on stage, and is intended for an adult audience.
I’m also befuddled how director Rob Marshall missed what should have been the central theme, or a common thread all of these tales share at their heart- the loss of innocence, or the desire to protect that innocence. It was obvious to this writer what idea these tales could be united under- so obvious that when the film bothers to acknowledge it for a tiny scene, I recognized an actual film; and a good one at that. When the Witch visits Rapunzel to warn her to what might be out there ‘in the woods’, we find a sweet, heartfelt, yet sad moment. The scene works so well that when it abruptly ends and devolves back into nonsense, we’re left wondering why Marshall cannot see what we’re seeing.
I’ve already spoken to why the music doesn’t work. The songs, should we call them that, are a mess. Sometimes we get a 4 minute tune, sometimes a 30 second monologue that is sung, but there exists no flow to them, no natural balance of sound. I’m sure a Broadway or musical lover can tell me about the cadence of stage musicals, or how clever the lyrics are, or how I don’t understand the talent necessary to make them work. I would retort that the lack of aural cohesion in this film made me wonder how any musical ever works.
Into the Woods may be the most confusing film in recent memory. It stubbornly refuses to understand what movie it should be, stubbornly refuses to be cinematic in general, and seems to want to speak to only little girls- current and former. Aside from a minute-long scene that works and some occasionally impressive visuals, it is an overlong, confusing mess of a musical. I found myself not caring for any character, or finding myself transported at all. If a supposed whimsical, musical, cinematic fantasy cannot provide whimsy, cinematic moments, fantasy, or a modicum of sensible music, has it not failed to do exactly what it should do? I think it stands to reason. Coupled with the clear miss on tone, there isn’t a single thing I can recommend about the film outside of a one minute interlude. Find that on YouTube. Skip the film.