Into the Woods
Into the Woods (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish to conceive a child but their previous attempts had been unsuccessful. A witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door reveals that this is so because she had cast a curse on the baker’s family when he was an infant and it can only be reversed if she is provided the following by the third midnight: a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold, and a cow as white as milk. These items can be found by venturing bravely into the woods.
Based on James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s play of the same name, “Into the Woods” offers a neat concept of combining well-known fairy tales and attempting to mold an original story without the expected, well-ironed lessons and neatly tied ending. On several levels, the movie works. Once it starts, for those of us who have not seen the original musical, we wonder if and are excited as to how the screenplay will manage to weave in the various subplots together. However, let us not forget that the picture is, in its core, a musical. None of the songs are instantly memorable. Not one of them demands to be heard a second time. There is not one perfectly choreographed number powerful enough to make any sort of a cultural impact.
When the characters sing, I wanted to put my palms onto my ears and press hard. I found the songs to be so forced—many of them relying on sweeping crescendos to create a semblance of emotion. The melodies usually do not match the lyrics. The lyrics are either too wordy or there are too many syllables packed together in a meter to be considered pleasing to the eardrums. For a musical that is supposed to be very successful, I was at a loss how it had managed to reach such a status. Is it the costumes? Do key elements in the musical fail to translate on screen? In any case, evaluating the movie as is, it doesn’t work.
The material is at the top of its form when it is treated like a children’s book. Notice that in certain sections of the film, the narrator comes in, provides a bit of background or informs us what is about to transpire, and the characters are allowed to interact with one another. It may come across slightly robotic at times, but the pacing is fast and to the point. The experience is smooth—like reading one or two lines on the page, looking at the pictures, and turning onto the next page. There is a rhythm that is easy to follow and so we overlook or forgive the picture’s shortcomings.
But then the singing starts up again. Because the music is an experience to be endured, we notice little things like a handful of the performers’ voices perhaps not being too well-suited to musicals. An exception is Daniel Huttlestone who plays a dim-witted boy named Jack, assigned by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell their cow for no less than five pounds. Also during the musical numbers, observe that the woods looks like a set equipped with fake leaves, fake fog, fake shadows, fake emotions. We even grow watchful of the makeup on the actors’ faces. It shouldn’t be this way.
For what it’s worth, “Into the Woods,” directed by Rob Marshall, takes some risks that I appreciated. The interactions between Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) have a sexual undercurrent that is certain to go over kids’ heads. Cinderella and Rapunzel’s princes (Chris Pine and Billy Bagnussen, respectively) have their highly amusing moments. And Streep, as usual, elevates the material by playing a character that is over-the-top but not exactly cartoonish. Be forewarned, however, that while the film is tolerable, its failings are distractingly conspicuous.