A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.
Disney is that rare company that always seems to have its cinematic hand on the pulse of the nation. With their recent acquisitions of Marvel and LucasFilm and Pixar before that, you can bet they’ll be testing the world’s temperature every day so they can stay ahead of the pack. From the classics, such as “Bambi,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Jungle Book,” right up to today’s gems, “Finding Nemo”, “Up” and “Wall-E,” Disney, for the most part, apparently, can do no wrong. Having said that, after viewing “Into the Woods,” I came away with a strange feeling. Normally, after watching a film, you can tell, immediately, where it belongs; action, comedy, sci-fi, etc., the movie is pretty self explanatory and you know which genre to assign it to.
“Into the Woods” is exceptional in as much as it was not easy for me to categorize. Initially, from the trailers and press junkets I’d seen, it was pretty evident that it was a musical but after watching the movie, it felt more like an operetta, comparable to a Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration than some of their previous straightforward musicals such as “Frozen” or even the “High School Musicals” and that right there, could pose a problem. There are obviously fans of the “Into the Woods” stage production but asides from them and with no particular predetermined audience, none that I could distinguish anyway, I feel like that right there, could end up hurting the movie. Without knowing who to aim your film at, it’s pretty much a free-for-all and could go either way.
As far as the story goes, it effectively incorporates several classic stories and characters and does so admirably. We are introduced to the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who find out from their neighborly Witch (Meryl Streep), that they will never be able to conceive as she placed a curse on his father years earlier because he stole from her and that the curse will follow every generation unless they can retrieve several items for her within the next few days. They must recover “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold.” So off they set and along the way, they meet Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) who owns the cow and trades it for magic beans, Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who owns the red cape and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who owns the slipper as pure as gold.
We also meet Rapunzel, who lives in a high tower in the middle of the forest and who attracts the attention of a Prince (Billy Magnussen) and Cinderella who lives with her stepmother (Christine Baranski) and two step-sisters, Florinda (Tammy Blanchard) and Lucinda (Lucy Punch). Cinderella wishes for the opportunity to attend the King’s festival and after paying a visit to her mother’s grave, in typical Disney fashion, her wish is granted but this Cinderella is very different from previous iterations. Every time she attends the festival, she leaves the Prince (Chris Pine) and scurries away, unsure of what she wants with him in hot pursuit. During her departure every evening, she continually runs into the baker’s wife who constantly tries to steal one of her slippers.
The baker tries to steal Red Riding Hood’s cape only to be met with a piercing, high-pitched scream that echoes throughout the woods and then the white cow falls over dead in the midst of everything going on. Director Rob Marshall infuses some much needed comedic elements into a fantastic story accompanied by some positively memorable songs and every actor onscreen is exemplary. Of course, Meryl Streep steals every scene she is in while Johnny Depp makes a delicious and playful big bad wolf. The performances carry the film to heights it might not have reached otherwise with a less than stellar cast and having directed the musicals “Chicago” and “Nine,” Rob Marshall proves his expertise at staging some spectacular musical numbers.
However, there was one aspect of the movie I had trouble with and that was the last act. In true Disney form, all the characters get what they wish for and just as you think the movie is going to end with the quintessential “…and they all lived happily ever after,” it does a complete 180 and all the charm and magic we witnessed thus far, is washed away and everything becomes dark and somber and the film basically introduces a moral compass to all the characters. Spouses stray, people die and when everyone realizes that a giant has made its way down the magic beanstalk and has decimated half the kingdom and its inhabitants, family and friends put the blame on each other until they understand that they must work together to kill the giant.
I would have much preferred a happy ending over the bleak and mournful one presented to us and while the story is obviously faithful to the stage production on which it is based, I feel that a lot of people, especially the younger ones, will not approve. This one criticism aside however, “Into the Woods” succeeds because of its energetic and enthusiastic cast, lavish visuals, skillful direction and some unforgettable songs and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
In theaters December 25th
For more info about James visit his website at www.irishfilmcritic.com