‘Into the Woods’ is more shrill than charming

intoInto the Woods

Written by James Lepine, based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim

Directed by Rob Marshall

USA, 2014

What is there to say about a film that is destined to succeed in spite of its weak ambitions and generic form? Rob Marshall’s newest project, Into the Woods, has been granted a Christmas Day release. which will no doubt pay off bigtime for the director and Disney Studios. It has all the ingredients of success: it is based off an incredibly popular Stephen Sondheim musical, it features a fairy-tale motif, and it has an all-star cast. It also cashes in on the fact that musicals are once again a highly commercial prospect, and while innovation within the genre seems to be at a virtual stand-still, audiences will flock to see nearly any Hollywood adaptation of a popular Broadway musical. More shrill than charming, Into the Woods shares more in common with 1970s all-star disaster flicks than it does its source material. Often feeling more like a parade of famous faces in fairy tale garb than a cohesive whole, the magic and inspiration of the woods themselves are lost in an attempt at realism. From start to finish this film feels like an assembly-line project, aimed at the lowest common denominator of contemporary visual trends and popular movie stars.

With its overall grey tone and uninspired art direction, it feels as though Christopher Nolan’s brand of crime grittiness has invaded the musical genre. Have we as a society moved beyond the practicality and beauty of artifice? There is something distinctly missing here: in a film about magic, there is very little magic to be seen. The film has an incredibly drab aesthetic, a darkness that does not feel foreboding or sinister but bland and uninteresting. The proliferation of digital effects only exacerbates this sense of disconnect. Fairy-tales, which themselves are fleeting and misleading, need a certain weight to succeed. They are held together by a collective need for mythology, and an innate suspension of disbelief. The wispiness of digital effects seem to betray this truth, pushing us away, forcing us to remember this is a construct, and a poor one at that. Pushing in the direction of a realistic world only heightens the sense of fakeness; it is nearly impossible to get lost in this world. Above all else, this “realism clutch” feels that the filmmakers do not trust the imagination of the audiences.

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And why would you want to believe in this world anyway? The film reeks of bitterness and disillusionment more than anything else. Even that seems to fail, as the illusion itself is never convincing to begin with. The freshness of Sondheim’s texts seems completely lost here, as the thematic and emotional trajectories lack virtually all nuance. Of the cast, only Meryl Streep is able to bring real gravitas to her performance and depth to her character. While many are serviceable, an equal number of performers are outright bad. The height of Streep’s charisma only exasperates the energy void of some of her costars (Johnny Depp in particular).

What is the point of this kind of film, except for a cheap grab at money and a poor excuse to uphold Marshall’s floundering career? Panning the film seems like a waste of time; what point is there when this project will find a large and hungry audience? With everything stacked in this film’s favor for eventual success, even a smidgen of adventurousness would go a very long way. This film could easily have been a marker for practical effects or a new star, but no. The film could not play it more safe, preferring to indulge in bland spectacle than to try to move beyond the surface of the text. Aside from a painful dullness, Into the Woods ends up feeling condescending as a result of its lack of faith in the fantasy and imagination of audiences. Can we finally decide as a group that we will no longer support blandness and reward others who indulge in at least some degree of risk and ambition?

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