Review: Into the Woods (2014)

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Musicals, like comedy films, are very difficult to review. Musical taste, just like what makes you laugh, is such a subjective thing. Generally you’re either a Stephen Sondheim fan or you’re not. For me, INTO THE WOODS isn’t a great musical. It works, sometimes admirably, but it can be an inconsistent affair to sit through.

Once upon a time, a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) strike a deal with a witch (Meryl Streep) to lift their curse of childlessness. They pledge to bring the witch a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn for a ritual that will restore her vitality. Meanwhile, a boy (Daniel Huttlestone) is taking his cow to market, a girl wearing a rather distinctive windcheater (Lilla Crawford) is off to visit her grandmother, a servant (Anna Kendrick) desires to attend the royal festival and a damsel (Mackenzie Mauzy) awaits her true love in a tower. Their lives may be worlds apart but their heart’s desires lead them all into the woods…

Johnny Depp is just awful, but he’s only in it for about ten minutes, so that’s alright. I’m not really familiar with the Broadway show, but I imagine Disney had to tweak the source material to make it more suitable for a family audience. Even now though, Depp’s single number as the Wolf might as well be re-named the “To Catch a Predator” song. There’s a general feeling of creepiness throughout the film really, which is pretty odd for a Disney blockbuster, but it does allow for one of the first genuine, gruesome adaptations of the Brothers Grimm’s vision of CINDERELLA (complete with delightfully foul Stepmother and Stepsisters played with relish by Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard). Disney are getting into a concerning habit of either adapting unsuitable material for their blockbusters and having to tone it down later (as they did here), or putting in bizarrely dark and adult moments at odds with the rest of the film (much the same as THE LONE RANGER and MALEFICENT).

I really liked a lot of the songs – Sondheim’s music is swelling, the lyrics tricksy and complex. The very best of the cast is Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife, who she makes warm, funny and somewhat bewildered by a lot of the fairy tale goings-on around her. Blunt also completely gets Sondheim’s sense of humour, the amusing subtext of his lyrics and has a lot of fun conveying it. Lilla Crawford threatens to steal the show as a mischievous, bread-scoffing Little Red Riding Hood with a formidable singing voice, and Anna Kendrick and James Corden certainly have the pipes for their extravagant numbers. With Meryl Streep you get about what you expect from her Witch, but she should not have an Oscar nomination just for turning up. Chris Pine’s Prince works as a joke of a character, and his key song, “Agony” (sung in front if a waterfall with a lot of posing) is a brilliantly cringe-worthy comic set piece for an arrogant prig to launch into.

The film looks great too, with the costumes and production design lending themselves well to the feeling of a rich and layered fairytale world. This isn’t a gleaming Disneyland, but a dirty, ramshackle magical land inhabited by broken, eccentric dreamers. Speaking of everyone having a dream, I was reminded alarmingly regularly of Disney’s big comeback film, TANGLED, and particularly the musical number involving the bandit patrons of a grotty inn singing about their wants in life, which wouldn’t really look out of place among the numbers here.

The film’s main weaknesses come in the second half, and would have been difficult to avoid in faithfully adapting this particular show for the screen. The main thrust of Sondheim’s story is that yes, those living in a fairy tale do live “happily ever after”, but no, “ever after” does not last forever. After a very satisfying quest story has wrapped, we’ve still got to sit through a disaster movie tacked on at the end when a “lady giant” (said with gleeful surprise by Blunt) decides to hunt down Jack. It gets bigger in scale, but is ultimately slim pickings in terms of drama, and far less interesting in terms of character (our heroes go from having a compelling variety of aims in life to them all simply wanting to not die).

I found myself liking, not loving Into the Woods. I was engaged in the story throughout, but rarely riveted. If you usually like Sondheim’s work, you should be happy with the execution here by a solid cast and a proven director of staging musicals on film in Rob Marshall. Just be wary of the release under a Disney banner, because this one really isn’t for kids. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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