‘Into the Woods:’ Advance Film Review

First off, full disclosure: I’ve never seen Into the Woods performed on stage, so I don’t come into it with any preconceived ideas of how one should approach adapting Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical.  I can only look at the movie on its own terms and not on what it could have been if they’d done it the way somebody’s high school drama department did it.

The uninformed are likely going to compare this to Shrek (though it predates Shrek by at least a decade) because of its collection of fairy tale characters.  The interesting conceit of the show is that Lapine and Sondheim created new characters from whole cloth, the baker and his wife (played by Craig Ferguson heir James Corden and Emily Blunt) who are thrust into a world that’s populated by familiars like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Beanstalk Jack.
 
The baker and his wife are childless until they learn it’s because of a curse put on their household by the witch who lives next door. (A witch next door might lower your property value, so it’s a good thing she’s played by Meryl Streep.)  The witch offers to lift the curse and give them a child, if they will journey into the woods and find four things for her.  Those four things (a cow, a red cape, a golden slipper, and yellow hair) will be directly linked to four storybook characters with which we’re already quite familiar.
 
Much running around ensues scored to the impeccable Sondheim songs.  Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) keeps running away from her prince (Chris Pine).  Jack (Daniel Huttlestone - he was Gavroche is Tom Hooper’s Les Miz monstrosity.) is running from brassed off giants.  Red Riding Hood doesn’t do a particularly good job of running away from the wolf (Johnny Depp in a small role).
 
The first two thirds are likely going to delight general audiences, but I think it’s the dark, hard right turn the story takes in the third act that throws an interesting dose of cold reality into the proceedings.  The concept “they all lived happily ever after” is largely a bunch of hooey.  I’ve argued before that American romantic comedies lead to bad relationships, because their audience believes that once you find the perfect guy, it’s all easy sledding after that.  (I call it the “You Complete Me” fallacy.)  Life is hard.  Maintaining relationships is very hard.  Work is hard.  Paying the bills is hard.  Death is hard, and death’s biggest lesson, that life goes on after our loved ones have shuffled off, may be the cruelest lesson there is.  But, since birth, we’ve told children bedtimes stories in which “they all lived happily every after” in spite of that not really being true, and we know it’s a lie.  Into the Woods takes that concept to task.  The witch’s curse is lifted, the baker’s wife has a baby, and Cinderella gets her prince, but then reality intrudes.  Death intrudes.  Infidelity intrudes.  Human frailty intrudes.  It will be interesting to see how people react to this third act that turns on the story that’s come before it.
 
The film also deals with relationships between children and parents and how parents try to shield their little ones from the harsh reality of the world.  Streep has a song about it.  These are the stories we tell our kids, complete with the “happily every after” coda tacked on at the end.  It’s easier that way.  It protects them from realities they’ll soon enough learn.  In reality, Cinderella’s fate is likely less “happily ever after” and more “well, Cinderella and the prince had three or four good years until she had a miscarriage and he started drinking too much.”  What parent wants to answer the questions that bedtime story will bring up?  In life, there rarely are happy endings.
 
Of course, the greatest irony is the film was produced by the greatest perpetrator of the “they all lived happily ever after” myth in human history: the Walt Disney Corporation, and they seem to be positioning Into the Woods as family film for the holidays.  How audiences programmed to expect and need a happy ending will respond to the dark third act is yet to be seen.
 
It will also be interesting see how mainstream movie audiences respond to Sondheim in general, a hugely respected composer who doesn’t really write obviously catchy show tunes.  There are no big tap numbers or any ditties you’re going to be humming to yourself in the lobby, but the music is lush and all enveloping like relaxing on a warm beach.  Sondheim has never been as commercially successful as, say, Andrew Lloyd Weber.  There’s certainly no “Let It Go” here.  Some parents may be very thankful for that.
 
I have to admit to being a big fan of musicals, and, to be really honest, I’m kind of confused by people who don’t like them.  They’re pure cinema!  One of the reasons we go to movies in the first place is escapism, to enter a world on un-reality.  What’s more escapist than people bursting into song and dance numbers?  You can deal with the talking raccoon, but Hugh Jackman bursting into song is past your suspension of disbelief threshold?  Come on! 

One of director Rob Marshall’s earlier films was Chicago, an Oscar-winning movie that tried to hide that it was a musical by having all the song’s take place in Renee Zelwegger’s imagination (like her old face).  There’s no attempt at hiding things this time and that may keep people away.  It’s their loss.  There are some rough patches.  Exteriors and soundstage work doesn’t always blend seamlessly.  Marshall does a great job getting the songs to flow with the narrative; the movie doesn’t come to a screeching halt whenever people sing; however, he’s less successful staging anything remotely action-oriented.
 
When movie musicals do well (and the genre has been declared dead more than once), it allows us to see stars we like flex talent they might not be able to flex before.  We’ll get to see Anna Kendrick sing in two more movies next year, which is great, but I had no idea Emily Blunt was such a knockout vocalist.  With this and her turn as an Ellen Ripley-like badass in Edge of Tomorrow, Emily Blunt has very quietly had a fantastic year showing tremendous range.  Captain Kirk gets to show off a sturdy set of pipes and a flair for comedy; his duet with Rapunzel’s prince (“Agony”) is one of the highlights of the film. (The audience I saw it with broke out in applause at the song’s conclusion.)  Also, whoever hired James Corden to replace Craig Ferguson at CBS is a genius.  I’m really looking forward to a late night comedy block that pairs him with the great Stephen Colbert.

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