Into the Woods (2014)
Release Date: December 25th, 2014 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Rob Marshall Actors: Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Mackenzie Mauzy, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Johnny Depp
ike all fairy tales strictly adhering to tradition, the film begins with “Once upon a time…” The narrator, who is not specifically named or shown, proceeds to detail the setting, involving a far off kingdom with a young maiden, who interrupts the omniscient chronicler with singing. Multiple characters chime in, alternating their vocals for the first number, which, thanks to lyricists Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (who also adapted the screenplay), carries on for nearly 20 minutes, fading in and out of the main theme.
Unlike classic musicals, the sequences here blend together, rather than presenting individual moments for show-stopping performances. This signature Sondheim workmanship prevents any of the numbers from being markedly catchy. And it’s a bit odd when some characters talk and others sing, as if conversing in different languages. But the words fill in the story and push it forward, transitioning from several separate interludes before swinging back around to the primary notes of the title tune. Though the divisions are practically indiscernible, the lyrics possess wit and humor and, importantly for the sake of rhythm, effective rhymes.
Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wishes to attend a three-day festival at the castle, but must contend with her abusive stepmother (Christine Baranski) and ugly stepsisters Lucinda (Lucy Punch) and Florinda (Tammy Blanchard), who insist she’s not fit for the event. Meanwhile, the town baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child, but learn from the neighbor witch (Meryl Streep) that they’ve been cursed with barrenness for the sins of the parents. In return for stealing vegetables from her garden, the witch took the baker’s father’s daughter, who she named Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and raised as her own in a secluded tower in the forest. On the other side of town is Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who carries a basket of breads to her grandmother’s house in the woods, while little Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is tasked with trekking into the next town to sell his white cow so that Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) can buy food. As luck (and legend) would have it, Red runs into a ravenous wolf (Johnny Depp) and Jack trades his bovine for some magic beans.
Twisting several famous fairy tales together, the film has the witch cross over into the other stories to serve as a universal villain – along with a destructive giant who intends to destroy the woods, the castle, and all the inhabitants of the multiple myths. Imaginatively, the witch poses a solution for the curse: the baker and his wife must collect four items – a milky white cow, a golden slipper, a lock of hair as yellow as corn, and a blood red cape – to deliver to the sorceress within three days. This allows all of the various characters to interact and influence each other’s familiar storylines until they become quite unpredictable. In many of the funniest sequences, the players admit a self-awareness concerning the silliness of their plights, especially when referencing acts formerly taken for granted – like climbing up a rope of hair, running away from handsome princes, and gutting a savage canine to rescue people swallowed whole.
Although several visual tricks make an appearance, which clearly take advantage of the fact that there are no stage boundaries (including close-ups and framing gimmicks and grand sets), the picture smartly refuses to allow computer graphics to interfere heavily with the source material. The singing is still the highlight and the abundant humor is still potent. Dueling princes engaging in a rivalrous duet, the baker’s wife continuously circling the forest and confronting Cinderella as she flees the ball, and Red praising the excitement and educational value of her confrontation with the wolf are clever combinations of parody and music. That creativity helps to lessen the upset of the overlong finale (what was originally the last half), stuffed with powerful crescendos that feel like they occur in the wrong spots of songs, and slowed by too many messages about tired morals (such as forgiveness, perseverance, guidance, blame, and understanding) mixed into the repetitive but quirky exchanges.
– Mike Massie