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Review: Into the Woods (2014)

Into the Woods (2014)

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Premise: Based on the stage musical. A witch tells a barren married couple that she will lift the curse preventing them from having children if they can collect four magical items.

What Works: Into the Woods is a musical and the songs of the film, while not remarkable, are generally well done. The musical performances by the main cast are consistent and the songs are integrated organically into the film rather than feeling tagged onto the production. The first half of Into the Woods is the strongest portion, as a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) go on a scavenger hunt, collecting magical items at the behest of a witch (Meryl Streep). The items include one of Cinderella’s shoes, Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak, Rapunzel’s hair, and the cow belonging to the boy of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The way in which the story mixes together these fairy tales is fun and the first half of the movie has a lot of humor. James Corden and Emily Blunt make a very likable on screen couple and Lilla Crawford is a lot of fun to watch as Little Red Riding Hood. Meryl Streep has spent the late period of her career in roles that allow her to chew the scenery, and in that respect the part of the witch suits her talents. Into the Woods also benefits from a pared down scope. With the advancements in moviemaking technology, fantasy filmmakers are able to visualize virtually anything and that creative latitude has not always been for the best. Compared to the bloated scale of movies like The Hobbit, the scope of Into the Woods retains a credible dimension and the characters aren’t lost in an unnecessarily busy background.

What Doesn’t: While Into the Woods is enjoyable in its first half, the movie gradually falls apart throughout the second half. The story is predicated on the baker and his wife finding the magical objects and bringing them to the witch; that is accomplished halfway through the movie, bringing the story to its organic conclusion, but it isn’t a very satisfying one. It’s revealed that the witch required the magical items for a spell that restores her beauty. For all the effort put into collecting these items, that reveal is a letdown, even more so because the witch’s newfound beauty has no other payoff. From there Into the Woods continues to tell the story of its characters and the intention seems subversive; the filmmakers question what happens after the characters’ “happily ever after” fairytale endings as Cinderella discovers that her prince is unfaithful and the baker finds that parenthood is more demanding than he expected. The trouble is that none of the stories are complicated in a compelling way. There has been a trend of reimagining or inverting traditional fairytales as seen in Snow White and the Huntsman, 2011’s Red Riding Hood and the Shrek series. The problem with Into the Woods is that it wants to have its fairytale and satirize it too; the movie never does anything really interesting with these characters nor does it retell their stories in a satisfying way. In most cases the filmmakers skip over the defining moments of these tales; we never see Cinderella at the ball, Jack never actually ascends the beanstalk, and Rapunzel’s storyline leads nowhere. The movie also suffers from shoddy make up work and production design.  Johnny Depp plays the Big Bad Wolf and while the rest of the characters have a cinematic look, the design of Depp’s wolf is right out of a theatrical production, with the actor sporting a mustache and fingernails that suggest a wolf. The computer generated giants tend to look cartoonish and the makeup effects on Meryl Streep are noticeably bad in close-up shots, with the latex appliances revealing themselves.

Bottom Line: Into the Woods has a lot of talent in front of the camera but the filmmakers do not marshal the skills of their cast to serve a story that is interesting. The movie is ambitious but that ambition is never realized on the screen.

Episode: #523 (January 4, 2014)