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Into the Woods (2014)

Into-The-Woods-e1415275006650DIRECTOR: Rob Marshall

CAST: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy, Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp

REVIEW:

Into the Woods doesn’t make the journey worth taking.  Perhaps part of the blame lies with Disney neutering Stephen Sondheim’s original play, a dark-edged satire of classic fairy tales, toning down darker and more sexually suggestive moments in the name of “family friendliness”, but the generic musical numbers, with nary a catchy tune to be found (just compare it to the list of memorable songs in, say, Les Miserables) aren’t a promising advertisement for Sondheim’s original material either.  Satire only fully works when it’s a razor-sharp, incisive blade.  Whether or not the fault lies with Disney softening its edges, the movie adaptation of Sondheim’s play is a dull butter knife.

As fans of the play will know, Into the Woods is an ensemble of classic fairy tales tossed into a blender and turned on their heads with biting satire (or at least, that was the intention).  The “main” story tying everything together is a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who learn their inability to conceive a child is due to a long-ago curse placed on his family by a pissed-off witch (Meryl Streep) due to the misdeeds of the Baker’s father.  To have the curse reversed, and for her own murky motives, The Witch orders them to go on a scavenger hunt and bring her four items: a pure white cow, a golden slipper, a cape red as blood, and hair as yellow as corn.  This brings the bumbling duo into collision with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) who is sent to town by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his white cow, and through a convoluted series of events ends up in possession of magic beans that grow a giant beanstalk into the sky where giants live, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) traipsing into the woods to visit her grandmother, servant girl Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who defies her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski) to attend a royal ball where she meets Prince Charming (Chris Pine), and the Witch’s daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), whom her, shall we say, overprotective mother has confined to a tower, to which visitors can only gain access by climbing a long strand of Rapunzel’s golden hair.  Unknown to The Witch, these visitors include Prince Charming’s equally dashing—and equally vapid— brother (Billy Magnussen).  Everyone ends up in the woods, and after a convoluted series of events, some bumbling and mishaps, and a lot of singing, everyone gets their happily ever after fairy tale ending…at least until Act 2.

It’s possible to theoretically see how Into the Woods might work better onstage than onscreen.  In fact, despite boasting sweeping shots of the woods and a royal castle, the movie feels like the characters keep essentially wandering around the same small section of the woods, as if they’re on a stage.  Perhaps the lack of variety in the scenery has something to do with the relatively low budget (reportedly around $50 million, $1 million of which went straight into Johnny Depp’s pocket for about 5 minutes of screentime), which also likely accounts for the special effects being kept to a minimum (a climactic battle with a giant is hamstrung by the giant rarely being shown clearly and obscured through heavy forest canopy).  Director Rob Marshall previously directed the movie adaptation of the musical Chicago, which had considerably more verve and energy than anything on display here.  Maybe Marshall was just working with better source material last time, but he does little to liven anything up.  Into the Woods has a dark and murky look to it from beginning to end, and the musical numbers are presented generically with little variety.  Part of the problem is obvious: the script jam-packs too much in, leaving every story truncated and relegated to the CliffNotes abridged version.  It’s telling of how little impression any of this is making when a significant character dies and the viewer feels little or no emotional reaction.  As telling of the muddy screenplay, another character dies offscreen with their passing related in dialogue later.  It gets tiresome how often the characters frequently pause to warble forgettable tunes, and with the possible exception of the deliciously satirical “Agony”, not one number lingers long in the memory.  In fact, most of the songs are repetitive and irritating.  The problem isn’t so much the actors, some of whom have shown their singing abilities before (Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia, Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect, and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche in the 2012 musical film adaptation of Les Miserables), while others not typically associated with singing roles, such as Emily Blunt and Chris Pine, prove they can hold their own, but they’re not given anything memorable to sing.  A musical this bereft of memorable songs quickly becomes a dreary and tedious experience.

Meryl Streep is first-billed, but her role is limited (though so is everybody’s), and consists mostly of being made up to look like a witchy hag and singing a little.  The fact that the Academy found this worthy of another of Streep’s neverending series of Oscar nominations proves that Streep can literally walk into a room and pick up a nomination.  Emily Blunt and British comedian James Corden generate some comedic chemistry as the bumbling duo of the Baker’s Wife and the Baker, but for an actress of Blunt’s caliber, her part could hardly be described as challenging.  Even more thankless is the role of Anna Kendrick whose Cinderella is a wafer-thin and underdeveloped character.  Johnny Depp’s part, as the Big Bad Wolf, amounts to a glorified cameo, showing up in a zoot suit with ears and a tail and being onscreen for probably a maximum of five minutes, during which Depp doesn’t do anything special.  There was a time when Depp’s eccentric zaniness was enjoyable, but here he just cruises through on autopilot in the same “generic Johnny Depp mode” he’s been stuck in for too many movies by this point, meaning he shows up in a silly outfit, acts goofy, and collects an oversized paycheck.  In fact, the bright spot in the cast is neither Streep nor Depp, but Chris Pine, who’s hilarious as an outwardly dashing but air-headed and womanizing Prince Charming who’s far more in love with himself than he’s ever capable of being with Cinderella (he could be a relative of Beauty and the Beast‘s Gaston), inflating his voice to pompous levels that make him sound more like Prince Humperdinck than Captain Kirk.  Pine’s over-the-top, melodramatic rendition of “Agony” is the most enjoyable sequence in the movie (granted, competition for that honor is pretty slim), and one of the few moments where the satire really hits home.   The credit for this deservedly goes primarily to Pine himself, who seems to be one of the few people involved in the making of this movie who completely “gets” its tongue-in-cheek intentions.  Nobody else makes an impression, except maybe Lilla Crawford for the wrong reasons: her Little Red Riding Hood is so stridently annoying that we’re disappointed when she’s rescued from the Wolf.

Into the Woods could have had some potential as a vicious satire skewering classic fairy tales, but partly because of its overstuffed script, partly because of Disney neutering some of its racier moments (excising a sex scene between Prince Charming and the Baker’s Wife, and the deaths of several characters), it never takes flight.  Sondheim himself grudgingly approved Disney’s changes, but was less-than-subtle in interviews about his displeasure with it.  The movie adaptation tries to have it both ways, parodying the characters–Prince Charming, for example, being a vapid womanizer–while at the same wrapping things up with a happy ending, with the end result that the movie just kind of meanders around like it doesn’t know where it’s going, bogged down with boring singing.  It’s a little hard to tell who this will appeal to.  Its dark and dreary tone will bore small children and its satire will go over their heads, but what it has to offer for adults is dubious.  Venturing into these woods isn’t a magical journey, it’s a chore.

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