“Into The Woods” sublime and cartoony yet magical
I have theorized why “Into the Woods” was something hard to transition to the big screen a lot in my head. A stage musical about fairy tale characters learning there is more to being “happily ever after” and there are some things beyond their reach to which can be controlled. The tongue-in-cheek tone along with certain plot elements made me feel like it would be a challenge to adapt. But I got a nice surprise this Christmas as Rob Marshall directed a version of the stage favorite that is faithful to the source while being light on the alterations. The changes that are made exist to broaden the scope of the story while maintaining its message of “be careful what you wish for.” But it does it all hold together?
James Corden plays a Baker who has a curse of infertility from his wife (Emily Blunt) thanks to his dad who messed with a witch’s garden. The Witch (Meryl Streep) made a trade with the father to spare his life on the terms of getting his next child and setting a curse on his son that being the Baker that he will never have another kid. But as it turns out, the Witch is also under a spell and makes a bargain to remove it on the terms of getting a certain potion. And as it turns out, the elements needed come from fairy tale characters like “Little Red Riding Hood,” Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and even “Cinderella.” This must all be done in three nights or else the curse will remain.
As you might guess, the whole premise is unique seeing our favorite fairy tale characters we heard about as kids working off each other and even interacting. This was part of what made the musical work and I’m surprised to see how well it transitions here. The key element here is the woods. In each story, something happens in the deep forest and they have to solve a problem or discover more about their environment than they already knew before. And once they are out, its either back to a normal life or the journey still continues. This works especially for the movie as everything happens in the woods. The first 15 minutes setting up the story is outside to get an idea of what to expect. All the magic in stories come from outside the realm of their homes and this is well balanced here.
The performances are pretty good too adding a comedic layer that doesn’t hammer in the self-aware, tongue in cheek tone but enough to let the viewers be aware this is a fairy tale with a deep message. The only time it gets serious is when a character has an epiphany or when a problem that is too big to handle gets in the way during the final act. The chemistry of James Corden and Emily Blunt is good as they act like a normal couple than something phoned in. Sort of a Medieval Homer and Marge Simpson relationship that are aware of the problem at hand and will do what it takes to lift the curse. Even the kids that play Jack and Little Red are convincing as innocent kids that don’t know better of how big the world is.
But I’m sure one that will be the talk of the town is Meryl Streep as the Witch. While I did admire Bernadette Peter’s portrayal, I enjoyed every minute Streep was on screen. Her take was menacing but not to the point its scary. Its over the top to the point its funny but in a good way. And at times, she can be sentimental seeing she has Rapunzel to look after from the deal she made. But the crowning moment for me that sold her performance was during the “Last Midnight” number. It starts off quiet like a lullaby, but once the accusations get bigger and bigger, so does her anger as it grown while the scene itself gets more manic to the point she goes mad. Its a great moment that I feel rivals Peter’s softer approach.
But I can’t say “Into the Woods” is a timeless masterpiece. There are strange choices and nitpicks I do have that keep me from saying its a flawless spectacle. There are moments when the costume design and certain elements feel like they are taking from modern times. A painful example is The Wolf who is modeled after a “Zuit Suit” variation taken from the Tex Avery cartoon, “Red Hot Riding Hood.” Oddly enough, I recall an interview with the production designers saying this was the intended route. With all that build up to a tale set in a timeless setting, (and I do admit as great as it looks) it feels weird coming across something like that which can take you out of the picture. And while Johnny Depp is entertaining in this cameo, I do wish this hungry predator wasn’t so cartoony.
In fact, there are moments that push for comedic value in a way that is exaggerated but not to the point where its too much. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are prime examples as two princes that year for more in a song (“Agony”) where they wish for the women they want while running on waterfalls and ripping their shirts up exposing their abs like expected fan service. Again, its funny but there’s a balance seeing how we know the Prince can be a cardboard cutout character for a fairy tale. However, it pays off when we see they is exactly what they are and nothing more. A hallow characterization that claims to be daring and adventurous when they are really cowards.
The only other problem viewers might have is the final act when all is thought to be said and done, a happily ever after does not come. This is an element taken from the actual play that I feel works seeing once our characters get our wishes, they see the consequences of getting them. Even if you know the world a little bit more, your still lost. The ideal family is not what is to be expected as idols can be misleading. The consequence of discovering a new world and so forth. This is the only thing I feel that might turn viewers off seeing how darker and depressing it can grow to be. Without giving too much away, our leads take on a problem so massive that it becomes beyond their control to know how to stop it. Viewers might think it drags things out too much but for the reasons listed above, I think it works in that context.
“Into the Woods” may get complex but at the center is a story about being careful of inner desires. Its a throwback to the Grimm tales we heard as a kid and how they hold up today. While I’m bugged to see some songs nixed, I am glad to see some key ones like “Any Moment” or “Stay With Me” are used to full potential. There are parts of this movie I do wish where punched up a bit and again had less light-hearted moments, but as it stands its a respectable adaption. I love the sets, the special effects, the performances and the singing is just pitch perfect. I don’t even remember a moment when I was turned off by a sour note. Its all around a good movie. To best describe, think a better version of this year’s Malifecent but more Les Miserables. There’s so much effort in creating a fairy tale unlike anything we’ve seen that we can’t up but enjoy these “moments in the woods.”
Posted on December 26, 2014, in In Theaters (Sort of) and tagged adaptaion, Bernadette Peters, Broadway, Chris Pine, Cinderella, Crossover, Emily Blunt, Fair tale, Into the Woods, Jack and the Beanstalk, James Corden, Johnny Depp, Little Red Riding Hood, Meryl Streep, Movie Musical, Musical, Stephen Sondheim. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.