by Lee Purvey
Into the Woods puts me into something of a pickle as a reviewer. Venturing out a couple of weeks ago to a pre-screening in multiplexed suburbia, without having seen so much as a preview, I had only those preconceptions stemming from Rob Marshall’s name—whose films (including Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha) I was familiar with but mostly had not seen—and the film’s very Disney promotional poster, with its cheesy gold lettering and glowering Meryl Streep. In short, I expected a run-of-the-mill fairy tale, pretty much the one thing that Into the Woods certainly is not. I reveal this fact with reservations because coming to this realization on my own, gradually over the course of the film, made for one of the most gratifying experiences I have had with mainstream Hollywood cinema in years.
Director: Rob Marshall
Producers: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Callum McDougall, Marc Platt
Writer: James Lapine
Cinematographer: Dion Beebe
Editor: Wyatt Smith
Music: Stephen Sondheim
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, Annette Crosbie, Chris Pine, Richard Glover
US Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
My fundamental misreading of Into the Woods might be forgiven, however, considering who it is we’re dealing with. An ensemble cast picked from any number of classic fables—Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the Wolf (Johnny Depp), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Jack (of the Giant Beanstalk, played by Daniel Huttlestone), and various princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen)—all collide in a plot far too complicated (and arbitrary) to convey in this review. The main drama, however, stems from an original storyline, in which a characteristically normal couple, credited simply as Baker and Baker’s Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), face a characteristically normal problem: they are unable to conceive. Within the film’s opening minutes, we have learned the long, unfortunate history of this dilemma from their next door neighbor, this fantastical world’s Witch (Streep, delivering, to no one’s surprise, a show-stealing performance). In a breathily kinetic sprechgesang—sort of like “Alphabet Aerobics,” only uttered through prosthetically decayed incisors and to swellingly orchestral Disney accompaniment—the witch describes how, long ago, the baker’s father stole certain magical beans from her garden, which theft magically triggered her present haggish appearance and resulted in her placing a curse of infertility upon his house. The witch gives the couple one chance at lifting the curse, however, if they are able to procure “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold” before midnight on the third subsequent evening. With Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella taking to the woods that very night on their various mythical exploits, the stage is set for three days of bumbling Shakespearean antics.
This typically magical world thus created, Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine (here adapting his own stage play, which debuted in 1986) set out to completely deconstruct it. Their first and maybe most effective weapon is camp. At the climax of the first of the subplots to run its course, Little Red Riding Hood’s descent through the wolf’s digestive system—visually analogous to the cheesy time travel effect in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure—is enough to make your average CGI-benumbed viewer raise an irritated eyebrow, but when the young girl gets to the bottom and finds grandma biding her time in a soft-hued intestinal cavity, the whole thing starts to feel a little ridiculous. The giantess that, during the film’s second movement, invades the unnamed community where the story takes place is rendered according to a similarly low-budget ethos: in stubbornly incomplete shots obscured by trees or focused on individual parts of her body. The sets themselves where all of this takes place look like the Hollywood studios they ever so obviously are, and the same goes for the costumes—especially those worn by the aforementioned princes—which are gaudy, cheap, and revealing.
Simply bad as decontextualized parts, together these amount to a delightfully subversive full-on assault on the tired Hollywood fairy tale—one perpetrated for so many years and in so many features by Disney themselves—a sort of thematic implosion by means of cheery self-sabotage. This project is perhaps a bit hazily defined at first, at least for an oblivious viewer such as myself, arriving at the theater emotionally readied for all the bells and whistles and little catharses of the fairy-tale Hollywood world. But as the story continues, hitting all the right genre set pieces with increasingly evident doses of irony, it gradually becomes clear that this isn’t a fairy tale at all, but a film about exactly how far removed such stories are from reality, with all its unforeseeable tragedy and moral complexity.
Because in this world the Prince Charming is a cheat, the wicked witch a doting mother. Our wandering virgin reels off thinly veiled endorsements of sexual experimentation and self-education, while the would-be father is terrified of his child and the mother wonders whether there wasn’t something she missed along the way. In “No One is Alone”—one of the many songs from the original that composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim transferred to the screen—the baker and Cinderella sing, “Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good. Just remember: someone is on your side.” Here, finally, the themes that have been simmering all movie long get their first unequivocal articulation and Into the Woods shows its true colors: this is the great humanist musical.
This isn’t to say the movie is without its faults. The Rapunzel subplot falls mostly flat, with Mauzy and Magnussen (the maiden and her princely wooer, respectively) delivering wooden performances. (It is perhaps of note that this portion of the story bore the most significant revisions at the wringing hands of Disney execs during the transfer to film.) And while fans of the original will undoubtedly appreciate the appearance of all the old songs, there are really only a few true standouts in terms of energy and lyricism. There are even moments when Marshall et al. overstep in what is generally a successful attempt to reveal unhealthy stereotypes and myths. The final half hour feels straight out of a Tarantino film, marked by the sudden, bluntly stated deaths of several significant characters, which tragedies barely receive a passing comment by their survivors. It seems that Marshall is here probably trying to sidestep the saccharine, but in so doing he opts out of a more measured contemplation of mortality that would be welcome in the film. The same goes for the unfortunate fate of Cinderella’s (admittedly cruel) stepsisters and stepmother, who are blinded after their in-law’s triumph, eyes pecked out by birds. A respectable gesture towards textual fidelity, sure, but the subsequent handicap gags at the expense of the cane-and-sunglasses-festooned women feels tactless and cruel.
But the sneakily brilliant thing about Marshall and Lapine’s tale of emotional realism is that it inherently accounts for its own faults. Yes, Magnussen is a mediocre soap opera star most notable for his looks, but so is, basically, the buffoonish overeager prince that he plays. Cinderella’s trajectory from tormented servant girl to starstruck lover to disenchanted princess may be underdeveloped and confused—but isn’t that exactly the kind of enchanting mystery and unsexy emotion real love is actually made of, especially the transient kind herein depicted? Soaring above these imperfections is the refreshingly sincere and deeply needed moral of this strange, beautiful fairy tale: no one and nothing is perfect, but everyone possesses worth.