A Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child but all is for naught until the Witch (Meryl Streep) pays them a visit. She reveals that their inability to produce a child is the result of a curse, a curse she herself placed on them because of Baker’s father’s misdeeds. In order to break the curse, the Baker and his Wife must go Into the Woods and retrieve a collection of items before the blue moon blooms. Their journey will take them in and out other fairy tales involving Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Hutlestone) and the beanstalk, and the Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford).
Full disclosure before I proceed, I dislike musicals and I went Into the Woods expecting to dislike it but much to my surprise I ended up really enjoying it. Mind you, I cannot speak about how faithful is this film adaptation to the Broadway musical because up until I saw the trailers for the film I had no idea this musical even existed. As a film, Into the Woods strays from the norm in the sense that it contains an undercurrent of darkness and twisted humour that I found both fresh and interesting. There is this misconception that fairy tales need to be happy and pleasant when in fact their source material is anything but. This is not to say that Into the Woods is unequivocally somber or depressing, but by showing that heroes and villains alike have the capability to both do good and bad things you get a story where the characters feel much more human. At first most of them are all incredibly selfish and throughout the story each of them learns their respective lesson while still maintaining some inherited flaws, which is something the Witch deliciously points out later on.
With so many flawed characters populating the story, the film opts to find the humour in their respective predicaments. In some instances, the simple placement of realism into fairy tale aspects goes a long way in not only grounding the film, but also instilling a degree of self-awareness that works very well. For example: when Rapunzel lays down her hair we see her pained expression as the person uses her hair to climb the tower. This self-awareness provides the film with an aura of twisted silliness and as such Into the Woods turns out to be an even funnier film than I ever could’ve expected. It is also interesting to see how the film flips certain characters and reveals them to be distinctive from what we’ve come to know, like for example there is this line Prince Charming (Chris Pine) delivers that I feel perfectly sums up how these fairy tale characters are in the film. He says: “I was taught to be charming, not sincere.” I like twists like that, they keep things unpredictable which is a rare sight in musicals.
However, like most musical some songs work while others do not and their effectiveness is directly related to the performances. Meryl Streep is, obviously, the standout of the film proving once again that she excels at everything. I never saw Mamma Mia! so this was my first time seeing her sing and I was blown away. It also helps that her character is by far the meatiest and that she pops up once in a while. She never overstays her welcome, in fact every time she appears she gives the film fresh air and an increase in energy. The Witch is funny, vane and with an insane look that only Meryl could pull off, especially the eye-souring blue that comes in the latter half. Emily Blunt is also great in the film with by far the most relatable and humorous character. If I’m honest though, her songs are hit and miss but I’ll put some of the blame for that on James Corden simply because I neither saw or felt any chemistry between them. Finally, the real surprise of the film is Johnny Depp. I wasn’t aware that his role was just a cameo. Prior to watching the film I already had some trepidation towards Johnny Depp, his track record as of late is rapidly declining. But as a cameo, Depp shines. His song is hilarious and with some fucked up undertones that work brilliantly. I vote for him to do more stuff like that.
The rest of the cast is effective. Chris Pine surprised me somewhat as Prince Charming and I liked that the film kept his screen-time to a minimal. His song with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) is pretty funny and I liked how that song reinforced the overwhelming vanity of these princes. Anna Kendrick disappointed me as Cinderella. Besides her song at the steps, most of what she did left me bored out of my mind. I was also expecting her to have a bigger role, but I’ll admit that I’m glad that she only popped up once in a while. Elsewhere we have Lilla Crawford and Daniel Hutlestone, who some of you will remember from Les Miserables. Crawford is funny as Red Riding Hood albeit somewhat forgettable, and Hutlestone is just fine. Lastly we have James Corden as the Baker. I did not like his character, he is just kinda there easily being overshadowed by everyone else. For a protagonist he lacked presence and ended up being somewhat of a nuisance, especially as he was given the deplorable task of narrating the film. I would talk about Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) but to say she barely registered would be understatement.
Into the Woods is one of the musical I’ve enjoyed the most. I went in expecting it to reinforce my dislike for musicals, but I was pleasantly delighted and surprised by its fresh and interesting twists on fairy tales. This is a film with an underlying darkness and twisted silliness that actively rupture expectations and dares to instil various dimensions into one-dimensional characters. As a result we get a collection of characters that feel human, they are flawed and with their respective mini character arcs. The performances for the most part shine, especially Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp. Like most musicals, you will singing some songs and utterly forgetting others but as whole I’d say this is one of the rare musicals where most of the songs work to a certain degree. If you think too much about the plot you will, of course, find plot holes and things that do not make sense (since when do Rapunzel's tears do that?). But at face value Into the Woods is funny, refreshing and with a level of self-awareness that makes the whole experience an enjoyable one.