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Into the Woods

Movie Information

The Story: Musical revisionist take on classic fairy tales. The Lowdown: It ought to be more of an event than it is, but this film version of the Stephen Sondheim show is good and ought to please the fans.
Score:

Genre: Musical
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, Johnny Depp
Rated: PG

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This year we get two musicals for the Christmas season — with this, Rob Marshall’s film of Into the Woods, being far and away the more anticipated and certainly more respectable — not to mention boasting an all-star cast. And the results are fine, though rarely inspired. Even bearing in mind that Into the Woods isn’t one of my favorite scores (a lot of it sounds like recycled Sweeney Todd to me), I think the reason for the film not being more than just good has less to do with the material than it has to do with the direction. I’ve seen every theatrical feature Marshall has made and have liked each of them — yes, even Nine (2009) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2011) — while they were on-screen. And then they simply evaporated from my mind — except for Chicago (2002), which is not in its favor. I suspect this will suffer the same fate. I also suspect that it will delight fans of the show because it takes few liberties, and it will do the same for fans of the performers — except Johnny Depp admirers hoping for more than his five minutes of screen time. (Granted, Johnny Depp as a pedophilic wolf in a zoot suit is a sight to behold.)

 

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Those who were worried about early claims that the film version would be Disneyfied out of recognition can rest easy — more or less. The softenings — and they exist — are largely insignificant, though I think they do conspire to make the ending feel rushed and perfunctory. Even so, this is still pretty dark stuff, and despite its PG rating it isn’t really aimed at children. Whether it is suitable for them depends entirely on the child. Since the greater point of this material is about the loss of innocence and the debunking of the happily-ever-after mindset, a certain degree of worldliness is perhaps required.

 

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If you don’t know, the story takes several well-known fairy tales and has them cross paths — even collide with each other — in the woods of the title. (In some ways, the dichotomy of the fairy tale town and the magical — if unsafe — woods evokes something of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) As noted, this is all intended as a debunking of the tales — almost a dark spoof of them — and that really wasn’t all that daring in 1986 when the show first appeared, and it’s even less so now in our postmodern snarky world. It’s not novelty that makes the concept work, but the slightly unsettling darker undercurrent that’s always present that comes to the forefront in the latter parts of the story. That there is also a degree of what feels like genuine magic in the mix certainly doesn’t hurt.

 

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The film — especially as a version of the play — has much to recommend it. The very fact that a great deal of it takes place in real — or soundstage — settings keeps it anchored and not awash in cartoonish CGI. Even a number of the effects are practical or basic cinematic sleight of hand, which is refreshing. That such things as grandma’s house seem pretty artificial matters less than the fact that you feel like you could touch it. There is, however, a downside to this. All too often the film seems too much like canned theater — a mere recording of a stage event. The line between theatrical and stagey is a thin one, and Marshall seems unable to tell where it is.

 

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Even so, it’s a solid work, and the performers are generally excellent — though I personally think two singing children is pushing it. If I had to single out a performance, I’d probably have to go with the obvious choice — Meryl Streep’s witch, and I am not one who believes Streep can do no wrong. It’s not just that she would make the whole thing worth the price of the ticket. It’s also the realization that when she takes her final leave all the air goes out of the movie, and you’re just waiting for it to wrap up the story. Should you see it? If you like musicals, yes. If you like this particular musical, most definitely. Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.

Starts Thursday at Carolina Cinemas and other (as yet undetermined) theaters.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

4 thoughts on “Into the Woods

  1. Sally Sefton

    Perhaps the point of the original play was to debunk these particular fairy tales, but more profoundly, to put to rest the notion that happy endings in life as well as these fairy tales simply aren’t realistic. When it was created in the late 80’s audiences saw it as a ripping apart of the fabric of the stories that saw us through childhood. In the theater community, it was seen as a refreshing departure from some of the more tiresome “love triumphs in the end” musicals and actors especially loved performing these roles because of the complexity of the characters and the richness of the score . This piece may not translate as well to the screen as CHICAGO, but for me it
    was magical and I learned something new from this production. I learned that the witch is infinitely more lovable than anyone else on that screen. Not because of Meryl, but because we all understand how love can bring out the best and the worst in us.

    • Ken Hanke

      It still seems to me that debunking “happy ever after” in 1986 is pretty late in the day to be in and of itself groundbreaking. Even within the confines of musical theatre — of which my knowledge is admittedly spotty post-Cole Porter — the lack of a happy ending wasn’t unique by then, e.g., Camelot, Sweeney Todd even the resurrection-free Jesus Christ Superstar, if you will. It’s not theatre, but Stan Freberg had made mock of fairy tales before this, as had the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (arguably, a better place to plant the seeds of skepticism in the myth). I’m not saying the show doesn’t debunk the concept — that’s the whole point of the second section of it. I just don’t see it as revolutionary in popular culture by that time. (Of course, in Reagan’s 1980s, a case could be made that myth was creeping back in.)

      I don’t know if it makes a better film than Chicago, but I’d far rather see this. Chicago is a film I like less with each passing year and one I find hard to sit through now. Take out the opening and Queen Latifah’s number and there’s not much there for me. In fact, that puppet number, which I first just found peculiar, I now find plain gross. How this will wear over the years remains an unknown factor, of course. I’m at a disadvantage because I’m not drawn to the music, so it probably isn’t something I’ll revisit much, and I already find the filmmaking more workmanlike than inspired.

      The Witch is really the only character who is fully formed. The others are more simply drawn and most of them aren’t even especially likable, let alone lovable.

      • Sally Sefton

        “It still seems to me that debunking “happy ever after” in 1986 is pretty late in the day to be in and of itself groundbreaking. Even within the confines of musical theatre — of which my knowledge is admittedly spotty post-Cole Porter — the lack of a happy ending wasn’t unique by then, e.g., Camelot, Sweeney Todd even the resurrection-free Jesus Christ Superstar, ”

        I was wrong to simplify the script by just talking about happy endings. It is much more than that. By the end of Act I, yes everyone’s wishes have come true: Cinderella gets her prince, Jack gets the giant’s harp, the baker and his wife get a child, and so on. In Act II, it all falls to apart. A second giant appears and indiscriminately kills anyone in her path. The princes are cheaters. The couple deteriorates to blaming and bickering. The characters question their original wishes and what they stole and whom they sold out to fulfill them. So it isn’t the lack of a happy ending that sets this apart. Michael Schulman of The New Yorker wrote this about Sondheim and I agree with him. “What I learned from “Into the Woods,” most of all, was ambivalence. It’s in every song, undermining prepackaged morals. (“Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” Little Red sings to herself. “And a little bit not.”) No one in musical theatre does ambivalence like Sondheim, and usually no one tells you what it is until after you’ve experienced it. Cinderella’s hemming and hawing on the palace steps is worlds away from “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” from Disney’s cartoon version. What if your heart doesn’t have a goddam clue?” So my original statement about debunking happy endings was a bit more complex than I originally expressed.

        I also want to clarify my comment about “lovable” characters. I didn’t really define them as lovable. But they are certainly more complex than the one dimensional fairy tale characters. “On the Steps of the Palace,” Cinderella’s monologue deciding what to do at the moment she decides to leave behind the shoe:

        You think, what do you want?
        You think, make a decision.
        Why not stay and be caught?
        You think, well, it’s a thought,
        What would be his response?
        But then what if he knew
        Who you were when you know
        That you’re not what he thinks
        That he wants?

        And then what if you are?

        Likable? who cares? He brings up questions and challenges the black and whiteness of most fairy tales.

        I am not writing these tiresome pieces to convince you or anyone. I am writing just to share some ideas. I come from a theater background. Yours is obviously film. I know many performers who would love to play any one of these characters. And really gifted actor/singers adore Sondheim for the challenge he provides musically and the character possibilities he provides in his lyrics.

        • Ken Hanke

          I’m not really debating what you’re saying, though I will point out that it isn’t Sondheim I’m accusing of being unlikable. Rather, I’m remarking on the characters in the play. I’m mostly saying that you’re finding an element of freshness in subverting the fairy tales that doesn’t seem all that startling to me. Sure, this is worlds away from the Disney film of Cinderella — and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical — but it’s also decades away from them. Time and pop culture had moved on, too. And the distrust of “happily ever after” dates back even further than those 1950s incarnations. For instance, Preston Sturges starts his 1942 film The Palm Beach Story with a wedding playing under the credits and ends it with the oncreen title, “And they lived happily ever after,” followed by another title, “Or did they?” before getting down to the what happened after “happily ever after.” For that matter, the “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it” idea is so shrouded in antiquity that its exact origins are unknown.

          Of course, if we’re honest, none of this has actually banished “happily ever after.” It’s still around and it still holds an appeal — not as a steady diet, mind you, and not always in strictest fairy tale form (which in itself is often sanitized from the original tales as to be unrecognizable). I don’t even think that it’s necessarily a bad thing. All drama has a finite structure. What happens after the book ends, the curtain falls, or the final fade-out remains unexplored territory. That is perhaps as it should be.

          None of this is a criticism of Sondheim or Into the Woods, merely my thoughts on why, for me, it isn’t quite as daring — thematically — as you see it.

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