By Bob Garver
Jan. 5, 2015. “Into the Woods” is the big holiday offering from Disney, a jaunty yet dark adaptation of a Broadway musical from the 80s. The story follows famous fairy tale characters as they interact with one another and their stories spin out of control. It actually manages to stay relatively predictable until about the two-thirds mark, when what seems to be Happily Ever After turns into destruction and despair.
The film is an ensemble piece, so it’s difficult to say that there is really a “main” character, but if anyone would qualify, it would be The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt). They’re promised a much-desired baby if they can get a list of items for a Witch (Meryl Streep) in three days’ time. They need to get a golden slipper, most likely from Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who doesn’t know if she wants to pursue a relationship with the Prince (Chris Pine); a white cow, most likely from Jack (Daniel Huddlestone), who foolishly trades it to them for magic beans; yellow hair, most likely from Rapunzel (Mackenzie Maury), who is also wooing a Prince (Billy Magnusen); and a red hood, which pretty much has to be from Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who seems doomed to be eaten by The Wolf (Johnny Depp, not playing a giant like the ads imply).
The singing is impressive, and for better or worse the songs by Broadway virtuoso Stephen Sondheim are terribly addictive. But I feel that with the choreography, something was lost in the transition from stage to screen. Everything seems cramped and camera cuts are a major detraction. Take the sequence where The Baker and his Wife dance around with each holding onto one end of a long lock of Rapunzel’s hair. On stage, I’m sure this was a detailed, intricate number. But onscreen, with multiple takes allowed, it doesn’t look as spontaneous or creative and a lot of the magic is gone.
People who are on the fence about the musical genre should be warned that singing accounts for almost the entire script, so don’t expect much of a break between songs. Some people will like that style, others will hate it; I’m not exactly a hater but I’m not crazy about it either.
The movie is very dark and mature. I’m not even sure it’s meant to be marketed to kids despite the fairy tale characters and Disney logo. Gruesome violence happens offscreen; it’s never shown but boy, is it implied. There’s a storyline about marital infidelity and the super-sleazy Wolf seems to want Red Riding Hood for more than his lunch. A much-admired character dies toward the end, and while the death of a loved one is nothing new for Disney, it is disheartening that they do it near the end. They should have learned from the maligned finale of a certain CBS show that the death of a beloved character followed by a sliver of hope and redemption still makes for a downer of and ending that leaves the audience with a bad taste in its mouth.
All the appeal of “Into the Woods” lies in the musical numbers. The film is at its best when the characters are madly bouncing off each other or Streep is belting out a showstopper. It’s at its worst when it’s trying to be serious or following storylines that go nowhere. Musical high points aside, this is an ugly film that can’t pull off its twisty final act.
Two stars out of five.