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Into the Woods

Into the Woods

You'd think with all the money and Oscars she's received, someone,
anyone could have shouted Meryl some conditioner

dir: Rob Marshall

2014

Musicals may be comparatively rare at the cinemas these days, but it does not mean the world needs more musicals.

On the contrary, if it spawns new ones, they need to be of the utmost quality to justify their existence, toiled over by the finest craftsmen and women that Hollywood can find for a few bucks and a sandwich.

Apparently, Stephen Sondheim is a great writer of songs and musicals. Apparently, Into the Woods is one of his most beloved musicals. Quite rightly, Rob Marshall is not one of the most beloved of directors of cinema versions of musicals. Chicago might have won a few Oscars, but when was the last time you or anyone you know voluntarily watched Chicago of your own free will?

Do you even remember it? He also did Memoirs of a Geisha, which was a shining and absolute true waste of everyone’s time and talent.

So if Sondheim is great, and Marshall is less than great, what could they possibly come up with?

Another forgotten recentish movie musical was Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which was also based on Sondheim’s stuff. Did you or anyone you know watch it, perhaps at gunpoint, or, more aptly, at the point of a straight razor?

I don’t think it has a fond place in many hearts, though I liked it, even as it came at a time when I was growing weary of seeing Johnny Depp in anything. Truth be told it is a feeling that persists to this day.

Well, I mention Sweeney because, for lack of a better descriptor, I think that worked as an adaptation. I’m not quite sure Into the Woods works as well, or at all.

You would think that Into the Woods would be an easier sell, in that it exists as something of a amalgam and subversion of ‘classic’ fairy tales given an intriguing, adult twist. I believe, though I’m not going to quote statistics or figures (everyone knows that 47% of all statistics are made up), that Into the Woods is the most successful box office-wise on Broadway of all of Sondheim’s musicals. So surely all the artfags and theatre dags were going to come out in force for this?

There’s a witch (Meryl Streep). There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), there’s the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), there’s Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of the Beanstalk fame, there’s Cinders (Anna Kendrick), there’s a Rapunzel, various Princes Charming (Chris Pine plays one of them), and a baker (James Corden) and his wife.

There’s probably dozens of other people, but I don’t care enough to look them all up. Almost everyone gets a song, and most of them are pretty forgettable. During a scene where Meryl’s witch character is belting out a showtune, my mind almost literally wandered off, out of my head, down the road to the pub, and it was with some shock and much surprise when I came back to my senses.

Really, this is all transpiring in a fairy tale kingdom where all the well known Grimm tales are brought together in recognisable form, but only for the first half of the movie. Even with the added combining element of the witch and the baker and his wife weaving the threads of Little Red, Jack, Rapunzel and Cinderella together, it almost seems to end with a “and everyone lived happily ever after”.

There is, however, another hour to go. One long, agonisingly long hour to go.

It’s the second half in which the real subversion of the familiar tales occur. These famous archetypes don’t get to live happily ever after, in fact some of them don’t get to live at all. Prince Charming, who ‘got’ the Cinderella that he loved so much and couldn’t live without, basically bangs a woman he comes across in the Woods simply because he can. When questioned as to his infidelity, he points out that he was brought up to be charming, not sincere. Why anyone would expect him to be any different from any other men makes fools of us all.

The witch, cursed herself, and one who cursed the baker and his wife with infertility, gets her youth and beauty back (making Meryl look like current Cher in a flouncy dress), but loses her powers, her dark magical powers. Cinders thought she wanted a happy royal ending, but finds no fulfilment there (though she did get revenge on her wicked stepsisters).

Others don’t even fare that well. Little Red, who was told to not stray from the path, strayed because it excited her, especially at the behest of the Wolf, and she regrets this straying from the proper and true path, but she admits that the Wolf’s seduction was not all one-sided.

The baker and his wife… The baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) is an interesting character. Only in a ‘dark’ fantasy, I thought, would a prince walk past a character that looks like Emily Blunt in pursuit of the mousey Cinderella on offer here. And then lo and behold…

I guess that the baker and his wife are meant to be the lynchpin, the centre of the wheel around which all the other characters spin, though they are the least ‘magical’ and therefore probably the dullest. They’re grappling with, at first, childlessness (which some might think a blessing beyond the price of rubies), trying to get a child, one of them not really wanting the child, struggling to do a whole bunch of other stuff while palming the baby off to whoever else, and then basically dying.

Anything’s possible in the second half, and a lot of it is bad. You never thought you’d see something where Little Red Riding Hood wonders in song about the ethics of killing a giant seeking revenge, or where Prince Charming basically comes across like a more musical Zap Brannigan. All this and more could be yours.

I didn’t really like the parts with Meryl Streep. I generally liked most of the other bits. I never really minded when they transitioned into song, though I always get this involuntary moment of eye-rolling when it happens. If anything I found the bits where they were talking harder to handle than the songs. I had a few laughs, which is something, but most I was wondering, towards the end, why they were making something like this and cutting corners with the budget. I think most of the $50 million in the production budget went to paying off Meryl Streep, and doing the CGI on her melodramatic exits, which were often and numerous. It didn’t leave much money for other stuff, it doesn’t look like.

Also, many of the changes they made to the second half left it a bit confusing for me. I couldn’t tell you why they made these changes, and why they thought it would help the story thematically. There’s two important characters (well, one of them, being the Giant’s Wife is probably more of a plot device) who die, and I couldn’t even really tell you how or why they died, or what it was meant to mean.

It’s all about the story and the songs, the more rabid fans would say, but honestly, in this day and age where we’re having a new allegedly gritty retelling of fairy tale classics coming out every other week, does any of this really have the effect or the impact that it might once have had? The fact that Into the Woods is rated PG, and older kids could be taken along (only to be bored, certainly not to be entertained unless they’re musical theatre fans, which means you’ve already failed as a parent) should and is to the flick’s detriment.

Its strength, as always, as you’d expect, is in the craft and the wit of Sondheim’s songs. While performances may vary in quality, they’re all pretty good songs, not catchy in a pop sense, but amusing enough to listen to, at least once. James Corden does solid yeoman’s work trying to keep things grounded, and singing well, but he does come across a bit whiny. Emily Blunt? Well, she rarely does anything that wrong on the screen, though she won’t particularly be remembered for this.

It is, after all, a Disney movie, perhaps aiming for an older audience of people who love the 80s musical, but I can’t see that it is anyway a film people will be quoting or watching repeatedly with their kids on the coach on rainy days.

Let's be honest, it's not really any deeper or more psychologically complex, in this form, than any of the Shrek movies. Look into your hearts. You know it to be true.

6 times Meryl Streep has got to start letting other actresses in their 60s get some film work out of 10

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“Life is often so unpleasant, you must know that as a peasant” – well, thanks for pointing out the obvious, you scummy aristocrat – Into the Woods.

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