IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 125 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In a world populated by fairy tale characters, a baker and his wife wish for a child but suffer under a curse laid upon the baker’s family by a witch who found the baker’s father robbing her garden when his mother was pregnant. The witch offers to lift the curse, but only if the baker and his wife obtain four critical items for her. They are Cinderella’s golden slipper, Rapunzel’s yellow hair, Red Riding Hood’s red cape, and Jack’s white cow. The couple set out on their quest, only having three days….
Into The Woods is one odd and interesting film, no doubt about it, and fully deserves an extensive review for this website. There are aspects of it which are superb, and despite being a musical it’s certainly not a pointless remake like Annie, nor an artistic disaster like Les Miserables, which was badly hampered by the director deciding, for some bizarre reason, to film a large-scale epic set around and during the French Revolution largely in close-ups [so much so that you hardly ever see more than two people in one shot] and shakycam. I was ready to believe that the film musical was almost dead as a satisfactory experience, and make no mistake, despite writing for a website that emphasises the horrifying and the dark because that’s what all of us on here lean towards, I do so love a good musical every now and again. Read my recent glowing review of Eureka Entertainment’s stunning Blu-ray release of The Gang’s All Here for proof. Into The Woods does revive the movie musical for me, and proves that they can still make decent films in this genre, but truth be told it’s also a frustrating, flawed and in the end somewhat misconceived exercise that doesn’t entirely come off… which in a way makes its not-so-much good as actually very great qualities all the more frustrating.
A deconstruction of several fairy tales and an examination of their themes and meaning, Into The Woods began life as a stage musical in 1987. There were plans to film it as early as 1992, starring Robin Williams, Goldie Hawn, Cher, Danny DeVito and Roseanne Barr, and later planned adaptations included a Muppet movie. Now I haven’ t seen the stage musical, but it seems that some major and even drastic changes were required by Disney before production on this 2014 version could get underway. And that, I think, is the source of most of the problems with this film. The stage version, despite revolving around fairytales, was aimed at adults. Disney, unsurprisingly, decided that the film version should be much more kid-friendly while still retaining just a dash of adult elements. I haven’t so far read much about the specific alterations, but even if you don’t know or care that it was adapted from a stage play, it’s obvious that some things have been heavily altered so some points made are virtually neutered, or that scenes and even subplots are either missing or cut down to the bare minimum. The result is still intriguing and enjoyable for the most part, but frankly is also a bit of a mess, though the important themes, such as the possibly negative consequences of ‘happily ever after’ , the possible dangers of wishing, and how appearances can be deceptive, are still there in maybe not full but definitely still visible force, which is good. The essence of the play has obviously not been lost, but it seems that some of its power and subversiveness has been.
I’ve never really understood why Rob Marshall is considered a really good director, even of musicals. Chicago, surely one of the weakest films to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, badly needed a director with a far greater imagination to be properly realised, and Nine was just a dreary mess. The opening sequence of Into The Woods expertly links the film’s five stories – the four ones we all know plus the tale of the baker and his wife who can’t have children and set off on a quest to obtain certain objects which will cause a certain witch to grant them their wish – together, and the editing and pacing are so well achieved I wondered if Marshall really had become much better. However, it soon becomes apparent that Into The Woods really needed a director with a much greater sense of the fantastic [dare I say Terry Gillliam?], while the settings are a little dull when they could and should have been truly magical.
Still, Into The Woods is undoubtedly fun for the first two thirds. The pace is fast without being frantic, we get to see good retellings of familiar fairy tales which are sometimes more faithful than we normally see [why are some people complaining about Cinderella’s half-sisters cutting off a toe and heel respectively so their feet can fit in the glass slipper when one of the earliest versions of that story actually had that occur?], and the music and singing are magnificent. Steven Sondheim’s stuff, which is sometimes quite astringent and even discordant, is vey divisive – he clearly thinks up the words first and then creates the music to match them, meaning that some songs largely consist of repeated musical phrases [though this rarely caused many of Alan Menken’s often great Disney songs any harm or reduction in popularity] – but the lyrics are superb and often become true poetry as well as being often very hard to sing well. The cast, almost entirely [and I mean Chris Pine, something I can’t believe I’m saying, though his posh English accent lapses into American far too easily and frequently], execute the songs astonishingly well and are sometimes truly great. We all knew Meryl Streep could sing well from Mamma Mia, but it’s great seeing and hearing her singing stuff that is actually good, especially in Stay With Me where her performance really will seem to almost raise the roof on the cinema you’re in. The best number in pure execution though is Agony, where Pine [there we go again, I’m praising him] and Billy Magnussen as princes sing of their romantic, well, agony in a hilariously camp fashion, even bearing their chests. It’s as funny as anything in Shrek.
Sadly though after a while certain parts of the film seem to be very rushed. Important events often either occur off-screen or we cut into them when they’re almost over, while all the constant running into each other in the same wood would undoubtedly have worked well on stage but eventually gets a little tiresome on screen. The device of the film seeming to end two thirds of the way through and then continuing to show how ‘happily ever after’ isn’t necessarily happy and that all actions have consequences, is brave, but the pacing almost drags to a halt for a while, and flirtation with real darkness isn’t really followed through. Yes, some characters do things which we wouldn’t expect them to do, there is at least one surprising death, and there’s a moodier atmosphere, but it doesn’t really compel as much as it should do, perhaps because so much has been toned down or removed, and none of this gets close to the early scene where Johnny Depp [sounding like David Bowie again] sings Hello Little Girl to Little Red Riding Hood and we get an unmistakeable element of paedophilia. It’s unsavoury, it’s dangerous and it’s also brilliant. It’s there in the original story, and reminds us that so many fairytales may be about things like morality and responsibility but are also, when you get down to it, about burgeoning sexuality and its dangers. Occasionally, Into The Woods really does get to the heart of the fabulous, multi-layered stories it’s inspired by.
Unfortunately, it often seems to be held back in a rather misguided attempt to be family-friendly, yet it still never quite loses its adult approach to what many wrongly seem to be juvenile material. The result is a film that seems unsure of who to aim at and, for a start, will probably confuse many kids. Rather than have Disney neuter it, they should have [and yes, Steven Sondheim and James Lapine did agree to the changes and even re-worked much of their material] found another studio more willing to take on a musical that was not intended to appeal to kids and not try to tame it. After all, it didn’t do Sweeney Todd [also from Sondheim] much harm. I feel that I’ve perhaps criticised Into The Woods a bit too much because it is certainly enjoyable, admirably strange and audacious, and without a doubt works superbly in two of the most important areas a musical should – music and singing. But it could have been so much more. I’ll tell you what, if they revive the stage version, I’ll go and see it and will report back. I have a feeling it’ll be magnificent.