Director: Rob Marshall
Writer: James Lapine (book and screenplay)
Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick
Release date: January 8th, 2014
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running time: 124 minutes
Best part: The dynamic performances.
Worst part: The final 25 minutes.
Into the Woods, born from acclaimed composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s glorious 1987 Tony Award-winning stage production, serves a specific purpose: making fun of everything you love. Despite the patronising satirical glow, his style allows theatre-goers, fantasy-epic aficionados etc. to laugh with his production and at genre art. Several years ago, fans of Sweeney Todd were treated to Tim Burton’s spirited remake starring white-faced Johnny Depp and soot-covered soundstages. So, does this one hit the high notes or fall to wailing lows?
Tinseltown’s latest Broadway-to-Blockbuster smash is up against this Oscar Season’s biggest hitters. Wholly separating itself from its WWII/manipulative biopic/satirical broadway/Hobbit-starring competition, Into the Woods flaunts its creative consultants, director, and starry cast’s better sides. Placed in the Awards-hungry musical/comedy slot, it compares favourably to every other recent musical-to-screen effort (Les Miserables, among others). This musical deconstructs significant Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales including Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. In a small village, a wack-a-doo witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a cursed-to-never-conceive baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to obtain four items – a cow as white as milk, a cloak as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – before the next blue moon. For varying – albeit well-known – reasons, scullery maid turned princess hopeful Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), peasant boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) also venture into the dreaded neighbouring woods.
The musical-to-movie switch is a long-standing Hollywood process. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) has dedicated himself to the art form. Even his songless flops, Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, reek of flamboyance and grand-scale camp. Marshall efficiently applies his vast skill-set to Into the Woods, delivering a extravagance-fuelled hit rivalling Chicago‘s overt magnetism. The filmmaker, applying a unheard-of rehearsal schedule here, protects the original material’s legacy while lathering his style across each frame. Indeed, Sondheim’s outside-the-box storytelling style and pin-point sense of humour shine throughout this slick adaptation. Appealing to cinema-goers and theatre buffs alike, it snappily pays homage to Sondheim’s enduring legacy. Author/playwright/screenwriter James Lapine valiantly trims his original ground-breaking material down to fit effortlessly. This adaptation aptly carries its own heaving weight throughout its first three quarters. Marshall and co. succinctly interweave all four fairy tales into the central plot-line. Indeed, this Avengers-style gathering of fairy tale favourites draws out that inner-child-esque nostalgic glow. Its balance between anachronistic satire and old-timey fantasy fluff will satisfy families and cinephiles this Oscar season. It’s darker elements – connotations alluding to pedophilia and adultery – are overshadowed by its winning formula.
“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” (Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine), Into the Woods).
Sadly, Into the Woods‘ story topples over with the full force of a giant, a carriage, and Rapunzel’s heavenly locks combined. The original premise, depicting the meaningless of life post “happily ever after” for these fictional celebrities, is preserved haphazardly for the final 30 minutes. The finale, stretching this adaptation into a discomforting fourth act, throws unrefined resolutions and peculiar tonal switches into the otherwise hearty, designed-to-win potion. Eventually, the abundance of character arcs and story-lines sends it down the wrong path. Despite these near-crippling flaws, it’s an ample antidote to our recent slew of dark, dreary fairy-tale adaptations (Snow White & the Huntsman…ZZZZZ). It simply, and smartly, lets heroes be likeable and villains be despicable. However, the cynical twang elevates its forgettable array of musical numbers. The standout, oddly enough, involves a testosterone-fuelled feud between a Hollywood heartthrob and relative newcomer. The charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) engage in a hysterically homoerotic number (‘Agony’) comparable to Top Gun‘s volleyball scene. Sadly, despite the cast and crew’s immense talents, the surrounding numbers struggle to escape its shadow. Red and the Wolf(Johnny Depp)’s set-piece – ‘Hello, Little Girl’ – is a mild reprieve. Streep and Blunt, yet again, deliver astounding turns in leading roles. Despite their underutilised supporting characters, Tracy Ullman, Mackenzie Mauzy, and Christine Baranski make a strong case for more big-time female roles.
Into the Woods‘ true, uncompromising magic comes from a desire to please audiences rather than shock or repel them. In the midst of imitation games, unbroken actress turned directors, and Timothy Spall’s grunts, this smash hit transitions gorgeously from the Big Apple to the bright lights. Marshall, recovering from tedious recent efforts, wholeheartedly succeeds with this hilarious and arresting fantasy epic. Its journey-better-than-the-destination vibe, for better or worse, separates it from the ‘village’.