‘Into the Woods’ nearly killed me

posterInto the Woods
Written by James Lapine from the musical by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine
Directed by Rob Marshall
USA, 2014

 

Normally, I’m a fair and agreeable chap who approaches each movie with an open mind.  I must warn you, however, that my review of Into the Woods will be neither fair nor agreeable.  I will not be fawning over director Rob Marshall, who seems clueless as to what his own movie is about, nor will I be singing the praises of Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, who has probably written grocery lists more pleasing to the ear than these tunes.  What I will be doing is trying to deconstruct one of my most grueling cinematic experiences of 2014.

So you’ve got this great idea.

You want to combine the four fairy tales, “Cinderella (Anna Kendrick),” “Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford),” “Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Beanstalk,” and “Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy),” into one big story.  How do you tie these disparate tales, each with their own themes and moral quandaries, into one unified story that is greater than its parts?

If Into the Woods is any indication, you don’t.

Adapted by James Lapine (from his own book), with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods is such a mishmash of tones, styles and themes that even the director, Rob Marshall, has no earthly clue how to proceed.  The 4 fairy tales are connected by the wispiest of story threads; a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) must lift the Witch’s (Meryl Streep) spell that prevents them from having a baby.  Apparently, adoption doesn’t exist in this fairy tale world, so the Baker and his Wife stumble into the woods to retrieve the cow, the red cape, the slipper and the golden hair that are required to break the ancient spell.

Cinderella

This contrived attempt to connect the stories is emblematic of the film’s complete lack of imagination.  Instead of building and intertwining the stories toward some greater purpose, the filmmakers seem content to let them unwind separately in the most boring fashion possible.  Rapunzel’s tale, in particular, is so inconsequential that her warbling elicits more seething than sympathy.  Couldn’t they at least give her a different hair color?  Maybe turn her into a brooding emo-type with blue hair and tattoos?  Do something… anything… to juice up her story!

Using one setting for the entire film may add a bit of consistency, but everything is eventually consumed by the boredom and staginess of the woodland backdrop.  Seriously, the Blair Witch didn’t spend this much time in the woods!  These woods aren’t creepy or interactive, whimsical or magical.  They’re simply… there.  Why not choose a more imaginative and evocative place for your stories to intersect?  The only new character we meet in the woods is The Wolf (Johnny Depp), and he’s undoubtedly the lamest character in the entire film.

Speaking of lame characters…

depp

This movie is chocked full of them.  It’s hard to imagine two more irritating characters than Red Riding Hood and Jack (of Beanstalk fame).  Between their insipid songs about doing exactly what they are doing (feel free to mix in metaphors, symbolism, or fart jokes next time) and their stilted portrayals, you start cringing every time they appear.  Kendrick fares a bit better as Cinderella, but she’s extremely limited because her Prince Charming (Chris Pine) is such a zero.  Ah, Prince Charming… watching the scenes with either he or Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) made me feel like I had just wandered into a Dane Cook concert; everyone was laughing but I couldn’t fathom why.  They also perform a wacky duet called “Agony” that not only describes my viewing experience, but also signifies the exact moment when the filmmakers lost control of Into the Woods.

What is this movie about?  Who was it made for?  Why am I talking to myself?  These are the types of questions you ask yourself during a movie with no coherent tone or theme.  We get scary scenes, funny scenes, scenes with no dramatic purpose, scenes of whimsy, scenes of sincerity… and this is in the consistent portion of the film.  Once the Baker and his Wife achieve their objective, instead of having the decency to end, the movie switches to a new and even more tedious story.  At this point, the songs drop any semblance of wit and just start slathering melodrama onto every tortured lyric.

Even then, with songs so on-the-nose they should have included the story of “Pinocchio,” we still have no clue what this movie is trying to say.  There are songs about appreciating what you have, songs about dreaming for something more; songs about relying upon the ones you love, songs about being independent.  We even get a song that champions the questionable merits of moral relativism!  “Witches can be right, giants can be good, you decide what’s right!”  Uh… what the hell?

cow

This movie also has a bad habit of singing about things that it should be showing.  This includes boring, cinematic stuff like Cinderella at the ball, or Jack in the land of the giants.  You know… stuff with actual dramatic content.  Worse still, the music is just unpleasant to the ear.  From the interminable opening number to the saccharine conclusion, the tinny music sounds like a rejected score from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.  Sondheim may be a musical genius, but Into the Woods is not his best work.

Visually, Marshall is limited by the woodland blandness, but he doesn’t exactly help his own cause.  The only moment of ingenuity revolves around Cinderella’s wishing tree, which is an enchanting, if not fleeting scene that hints at what might have been with a little more applied creative energy.  Case in point: the giant.  You keep waiting for the giants.  I mean, what’s more cinematic than a giant?  “When are the freaking giants going to show up?”  And then a giant finally shows up and you realize… that’s why they weren’t showing any giants.  When your giant makes The Amazing Colossal Man look like cutting-edge special effects, it’s probably wise not to show her.

So, am I being unfair to Into the Woods?  Absolutely.  The truth is that I hated every minute of this movie, which has likely blinded me to any of its subtle attributes.  Meryl Streep, for instance, does a good job reprising her role from August: Osage County, while Corden and Blunt try their hardest to function as the film’s emotional core.  Blunt, especially, distinguishes herself as someone who understands the material and is capable of making it believable.  Because it lacks a consistent tone or theme, however, this film remains surprisingly distant and cold.  On that count, at least, I can relate to it.

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