You Wish to Reverse the Curse?
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
When I first heard about the Disney adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s critically acclaimed Broadway musical, I felt a bit of a hesitation arise in my initial bout of excitement. There’s something about Disney adaptations of dark material that doesn’t bode well and that largely has to do with the tendency of Disney adaptations to be far more lighthearted than the source material. Sometimes that doesn’t hamper the film itself while at other times the triumph of the juvenile tone becomes so irritating that the entire film collapses under its weight. Thankfully Into the Woods doesn’t become the latter. It’s not a perfect film, sunk slightly by a few, flawed narrative strands, but it is an eminently enjoyable one. The PG rating here shouldn’t necessarily give more mature filmgoers pause in all honesty (even though the entire ratings system needs serious overhaul). The darkness of the original musical is certainly toned down as one would expect with Disney and PG, but the hints remain there for adults to pick up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment, retaining the thematic inheritance from the original while not completely bowing down to the tone of typical Disney fare.
The story begins with a baker and his wife, played by James Corden and Emily Blunt respectively. The couple wish to conceive a child but are unable to do so because the baker’s father had stolen from the witch’s garden when his wife was pregnant. “You wish to have the curse reversed?” she cackles (an absolutely delightful Meryl Streep), laying a list of what she demands in return: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. This sets the stage for the classic Grimm’s fairy tales of Jack and the Magic Beanstalk, The Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, even though they’re fashioned here with Disney-esque imaginings as one would expect. Largely the tying in of so many various tales into a cohesive unit is successful and remarkably so at that. While certainly I can gripe about the characters from the musical who were cut for cohesiveness’s sake, it is still astonishing how cleverly and well-done the execution of the unity is. Sure, the Broadway play is largely responsible for that, but far too often Broadway musicals turned into films have been disappointing in thematic adaptations. So to see Into the Woods succeed like this is fantastic.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its issues. The script in places kind of meanders off from the central narrative and several times it stumbles before coming bcd to its heels. The woods in and of themselves feel remarkably claustrophobic, as if its branches threaten to strangle you and or stab you if you take a single step in the wrong direction. In certain sequences, such as when the Wolf is trying to intimidate Little Red Riding Hood, it’s fine and it actually works to the scene’s immense benefit. Yet for large swaths of the narrative, the forest is supposed to feel everlasting, as if it were a behemoth so vast that it would never be able to be traversed. It never does. Rob Marshall directs Into the Woods with a solid amount of confidence, but his consistent camerawork focused on a small frame does a decent amount of damage to a film that would have benefited from a few panoramic shots to say the very least. While I noted that the film’s greatest achievement was blending adult themes with toning it down for a PG audience, I also have to acknowledge that there are certain moments where the film tames itself a little too much for my taste. Partially that appeal to children comes from the casting of the young Little Red Riding Hood and Jack. The actors do a fine job, but there is just something cringing about them signing songs with strong overtones of sexual awakening. It’s not as irritating of a problem as some narrative oddities or the claustrophobic direction in places, but it can be a bit unsettling.
The performances are what truly shine here. Every actor knows their characters and they can actually sing, unlike some other musicals (you know which ones I’m referring to). Emily Blunt takes the top honors here as the baker’s wife. Her performance is simply sublime as she manages to add in all of the adult emotional context simply through her expressions. James Corden is lovable as the baker and Meryl Streep enchants as the witch. Chris Pine and Anna Kendrick as the titular duo from Cinderella are wonderful. Pine is actually hilarious and Kendrick’s musical chops are second to none. The supporting cast is uniformly wonderful, with Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, and Johnny Depp as the standouts. The production design and visual effects are simply astounding and amongst the best Disney’s ever produced (considering the official budget was set for $50 million, that’s even more impressive). And the messaging is fantastic, especially in comparison to traditional Disney fare that more often than not is fairly questionable upon keen observation. Into the Woods from the halfway point of the film on becomes much darker, exploring what truly happens after the alleged happily ever after. It’s subversive, almost enchanting in how truly mature it becomes by the time the end credits roll out. In terms of palpable material, it’s the strongest element the film offers and where the unity of adult themes and family fare unites the best. When Into the Woods delves deep into the psyche of what, indeed, a true happy ending means, it quickly becomes some of the most thrilling storytelling Disney has ever created. It’s well worth a trip.
Title: Into the Woods
MPAA Rating: PG
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Produced by: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt, Callum McDougall
Screenplay by: James Lapine
Based On: Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine
Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp
Narrated by: James Corden
Music: Stephen Sondheim
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Editing: Wyatt Smith
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures, Lucamar Productions
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Dates: December 8, 2014 (Ziegfeld Theatre), December 25, 2014
Image Courtesy: Into the Woods @ Tumblr