Into the Woods (2014) - A Fairytale Mashup Musical Extravaganza
Musical extravaganzas seem to be a popular must-have at the cinema these past several years. They’ve alternated from sweet and sassy to poignant and purposeful. In this film, Disney manages to strike somewhere in the middle of these components, it’s both comedic and poignant. What I didn’t realize when first learning of this production was two things. One being that it was a popular stage production. The mix of co-mingling results is likely to be a mixed case of emotions.
Once upon a time in a small village at the edge of the woods there lived five strangers. In this village is a young maiden ill-treated by her Stepmother (Christine Baranski), a girl who wears a cape red as blood, a childless baker and his wife and a young, curious boy named Jack. The one thing these villagers have in common is individual wishes their hearts hasn’t seen fulfilled. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) desperately wants to go attend one night of the three day festival at the palace. Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to visit her grandmother and has been warned not to stray from the path. First though, she makes a stop to get some sweets at the bakery. The baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) hope each day for a child and see their dreams drift away each passing year. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) lives with his stern mother who is fed up with their milk cow who hasn’t given a drop of milk in weeks. Her tolerance ends today and she sends Jack into the woods with the cow to sell at market. Normalcy is about to end for them all.
Cinderella is able to attend the three-night festival but runs from the man who could possibly be the dashing Prince (Chris Pine) of her dreams and Red Riding Hood happens to meet a hungry Mr. Wolf (Johnny Depp) out to do her harm. The Baker and his Wife see the most dangerous change when they receive a visit from the Witch (Meryl Streep) who explains a curse on their house. If they want a child and the curse undone they must fetch four things for her. A cow white as milk, a cape red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper pure as gold. The story may start with once upon a time… but to reach a happy ending, these strangers are about to form bonds they never expected.
Wow. I’m not sure where to begin with Disney’s latest blockbuster and still be able to share all the highs and lows without giving away spoilers. If you’ve managed to stay away from them thus far, I applaud you. There are lots of things you could be spoiled about with this one – and unusual for me, I’m glad I wasn’t spoiled for this nearly two-hour spectacular. When the film opens, it’s on a grand scale with a musical number, a narrator introducing us to the main players and of course the entire premise on what the film is based on. What struck me most weren’t the voices or the production itself, it was the comedy! I really did not expect it to take this approach to the material. Not knowing anything (or much) about the stage version, I guess my assumptions were based on the promotional spots which didn’t come off the way the set up does. The script really is quite entertaining (something I would have suspected if I’d known Rob Marshall was involved), and this is a nice offset considering everything else that goes sideways.
Doing a bit of reading about this story will inform you that in its original form, this story is raunchy chocked full of innuendo, which is why Disney omits some song numbers and had to change the format in places. Going into it eyes wide open, it’s not hard to see where some of those issues crop up. There’s a number with the Wolf and Red Riding Hood that’s on the verge of being “inappropriate” (and does wander into the territory a bit). Then there is a moment nearer the end that leaves us stumped, wondering where we misjudged characters so much. That being said, I really don’t think much of anything dampened the experience of seeing this on the big screen. The vocals and performances are also memorable and for once, the songs don't run together, which is a huge pet peeve for me. Speaking strictly of the production and sets, this film is glorious. Rob Marshall’s vision exceeds expectations and I was particularly impressed to read he uses green screens as little as possible. It shows! The lifelike sets and lack of special effects (or a lack in the sense of extensive use) makes Into the Woods a standout in the world of fantasy. The woods are appropriately creepy and beautiful, coupled with an Oscar-winning costume designer (Colleen Atwood) and an all-star cast (who are, let’s face it, brilliant – even the newbies to movies or vocals), this film has enough magic to set a very appealing, atmospheric stage. Really, I’m unable to lay any faults at its door.
It wouldn’t be a thorough gush or even a so-so write up if I didn’t say this, which ties into the earlier paragraph. This is not an old-fashioned fairytale. Saying this might lead to some curiosity and for those of you who don’t like to be spoiled, I’m sorry, but… it has to be said. There is something unusual about how this story plays out and though it tosses our view of fairytales out the door, I say bravo! The story misplaces story cues (on purpose) and this is partially where the fun comes in. Early in the film, it’s almost as if the script is full of satire and it knows just how goofy it’s being (note: the hilarious musical number, 'Agony' with Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. This scene was meant to play to its audience and be silly while doing it – or that’s what I believe). The second half of the unconventional is in making sure that this film is not a “happily ever after” sort of tale. Truthfully, it succeeds in doing that… or at least in the traditional sense.
I saw this with my mom and aunt, and between the three of us, we had very different opinions and views of the film. My mom and aunt didn’t care for the ending (to an extent). As a whole picture, my aunt didn’t love the movie, I adored it and my mom fell somewhere in between us. The ending can be what you make of it. I chose to see it in its rosier glow whereas some people may not. As I gave myself time to think about and process the film, the greatest aspect of it was really its more poignant and deeper messages. I admire that Disney didn’t give us a stereotypical fairytale. This one is darker and most impressive it leaves a lesson imprinted on us. Hidden or not, purposeful or not, there is something more to this movie than a pretty picture. In the closing credits, we are left with its message: no matter what we wish for, when striking the bargain to obtain them, those wishes don’t come without a price.
(Content: rated PG, the film shies away from anything graphic [there are a number of deaths that are implied and happen off-screen] or overtly suggestive. One musical number involving the wolf talks of wanting (to eat) Red Riding Hood as he croons about her innocence and “flesh.” A married woman momentarily is swept away by another man; they share some kisses.)