The hit Broadway musical, Into The Woods, makes a leap from stage to screen with a helping hand from Disney. Set in a village on the borders of a massive forest, it tells the tale of a baker and his wife who desperately wish for a child of their own. Having had their home cursed by their next door neighbour, who happens to be a witch, she appears one day and tells them that she will lift the spell should the couple go into the woods and bring her four items by midnight in three days’ time. As the couple head off to find a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, they come into contact with with various fairytale characters and end up inadvertently influencing their stories.
Directed by Rob Marshall, Into The Woods has opened to justifiably mixed reviews; some have loved it, some have hated it and I’m somewhere in between. There’s a lot that works in the film and plenty that doesn’t, but let’s start with the good first. The cast is great with Meryl Streep as fabulous as ever as the witch, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and even James Corden perform with great comedic timing albeit with some dodgy vocal performances in the musical numbers. The film looks great too and manages to maintain its theatrical quality with a small amount of CGI and great production design to the point where at times, you feel like you are watching it on stage.
Where the film really succeeds isn’t through its performances or look, but through the satire and dark, adult themes that it explores. The most memorable scene in the movie comes from Chris Pine’s Prince Charming and his brother, both in love with mysterious women, who decide to share their anguish and undying love in what can be best described as a boyband music video. There’s a river, there’s chest bearing and there’s manly brooding, that all form one of the funniest and self-aware moments of the whole picture. What I really liked about Into The Woods though, is the turn it takes in its final act. Having gotten us to the point of ‘happily ever after’, the film makers pull the rug from under our feet and take to shattering our child like fantasies of the happy ending. It’s in this final twenty minutes or so where the dark themes of the film come fully come into play and infidelity, death and murder reign, though in a very PG way. The biggest example of this darkness comes in the form of the little red riding hood segment, which has Johnny Depp’s Wolf act like a paedophile, singing of the little girl’s ‘plump flesh’. It may sound silly, but the connotations are there with rumours that Disney at one point considered cutting the wolf’s song altogether.
Into The Woods is at its best in these dark segments, however the constant shift between lightness and darkness means the film is tonally off balance. This is one of the biggest problems it has and it never feels completely at ease with itself, confused by what it is trying to achieve. The musical numbers are wholly unforgettable so anybody expecting a ‘Let It Go’ moment will leave disappointed and it does lack the charm of previous Disney films, both animated or otherwise. With two of the stories revolving around Cinderella and Rapunzel, there’s an unshakable sense of familiarity too with Disney once again reviving two of their ‘greatest hits’ in live action form. The fact that there’s even another live action re-telling of Cinderella due out in cinemas in less than a couple of months gives the impression that Disney are really stretching their characters as far as they can, which doesn’t just make for dull viewing but surely must be confusing for children as well. It’s no surprise then that the most interesting moments in the film come from the re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk rather than the usual princess stuff.
It’s these issues that unfortunately stopped me from completely enjoying Into The Woods and had it perhaps pushed the darkness a little further, I may have loved it. That’s not to say the film is a complete disaster though. Despite lacking the wondrous show tunes and being indecisive in its direction, it has flashes of genius throughout, both visually and conceptually. At times it’s Disney at its most adult and that’s fantastic, however it’s never quite brave enough to follow through on its big ideas and themes.
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