Into the Woods
Posted December 28, 2014 by Daniel Hodgson in
For Disney live-action, this could have been a lot worse. For a Disney fairy tale, much better.
Disney founded itself on the animated musical, especially of fairy tales. It’s what they do best, then and now. Now, “Disney live-action” has been responsible for such films as Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent. Into the Woods is then a mix of what they do best and they do worst, a live-action fantasy musical about Brother’s Grimm children’s stories.
A convoluted story weaves several fairy tales together. A witch (Meryll Streep), once a beautiful maiden, is cursed with old age and ugliness. To reverse the spell, she sends the town baker and his wife, themselves under a terrible curse, on a fetch quest to retrieve: Little Red Riding Hood’s clothes, Cinderella’s slippers (golden, not glass, in this version), Jack’s cow from Jack and the Beanstalk, and incidentally, Rapunzel’s golden hair.
There’s a bit too much going on here, by exactly one plotline. In storytelling, especially fairy tales, there’s always three of something, not four. The three bears, the three treasures from the giant’s castle in Jack and the Beanstalk, and so on. Into the Woods seems to know this. How many nights do the baker and his wife have to retrieve everything the witch demands? Three. Three nights to retrieve three things. That’s the way it should be, and the film’s stage musical roots be damned.
The witch promises them that once they’ve completed the quest, she’ll lift the curse she has placed on their house, and they’ll be able to conceive a child. Why can’t she get them herself? Let’s just say she took an arrow in the knee, because that makes as much sense as the story’s explanation. “Because it’s the rules!” the witch tells the baker. The story does not stand up to scrutiny, being merely a vehicle to get us to the next song.
Into the Woods tries to shoehorn a common message onto its fairy tales, that children should always listen to their parents. True, sometimes the stories of the Brother’s Grimm are cautionary tales, like how Little Red Riding Hood didn’t listen to her mother about not talking to strangers, and ends up getting eaten by Mr. Wolf (Johnny Depp, who sings a very creepy song about the bodies of young children…).
However, the children’s stories in their original form are not as simple as that. Sure, Jack should not have traded a cow for magic beans, but in the end, he and his mother are rewarded for his imagination and adventurous spirit. Furthermore, Cinderella is a story about defiance of one’s parent figures, not obedience to. Into the Woods makes the stories into the opposite of what they’re about.
Once it seems like everything is resolved, the story throws in a brand new villain, and the movie drags on for another 30 minutes beyond its natural stopping point. And that’s a problem for me.
To be honest, live-action musicals are not my thing, but there are exceptions, like Singin’ in the Rain. I gave Into the Woods a chance to be an exception, or at least something to appreciate as a good story, well told, but it is neither of those things. Of course, the purpose of a musical is the music, but there again, I’m back at square one. Not my thing.
Not helping matters are that the accents are all over the place. Some speak and sing with British accents, while their American counterparts stick to what they know. The disparity is distracting, distancing.
I’ll give Into the Woods credit where it’s due, though. As a production, it’s not CGI-intensive, but uses real sets and real actors (or at least real movie stars) in real, gorgeous-looking costumes. Also, there’s solid casting in Anna Kendrick as the long-suffering but ever-patient Cinderella, and if anyone can play Prince Charming, it’s the charismatic Chris Pine. Meryl Streep looks like she’s having a great time as the evil witch. Heck, everyone looks like they’re having fun.
For Disney live-action, this could have been a lot worse. For a Disney fairy tale, much better. Into the Woods splits the middle, much as you’d expect.