Destinys are Decided After Going Into the Woods

16 Jan

(or just how many D words can I use
to describe this Disney Film)

By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

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Unless Disney fans love musicals, their adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods is not worth rushing out to see. Even weeks since its premiere, it’s showing signs of not necessarily being a timeless masterpiece since its Broadway debut in 1987. Although the movie version is certainly faithful to themes the creators wanted to explore, the alterations made to make it more widely accessible as a film is only one part of the problem. Although they were consulted for approving the changes, some bits were for the best and others for the worst.

In what gets explored in the film are that of each character’s darkest desires getting revealed when they enter the woods. The further they go, the more trouble they get into. And the lengthy discourse in setting up each of them (when there are six) can be detrimental to the length of the product. As a two-hour film, the struggle is with keeping audiences entertained in its prolonged pace.

The music heavy intro does not work in its set up about a poor baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wanting a child, a needy girl (Lilla Crawford) possibly named Red demanding attention, an adventurous boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) daring enough to tempt fate after selling off his favourite cow, a tawdry lady known as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) yearning to go to a three-day ball and a wicked witch (Meryl Streep) showing that there is more to her than meets the eye. These character’s misdeeds can lead to the death of them all.

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When the witch promises the baker freedom from his family curse, all he has to do is to find four fairy tale objects. Interestingly, they represent certain aspects of purity that, once combined, will restore her beauty. She was also good, but when the Baker’s father stole from her garden, just who is worse must be examined. The blame can’t easily be shifted from one person to another. Instead, it’s in them deciding how to deal with their situation when they are discovered as fraudulent. The choices made afterwards to decide their moral compass are important, and the plot that’s revealed shows that everyone can change their own destiny only when they are willing. Like Luke Skywalker’s journey deep into the swamp to confront his fears in The Empire Strikes Back, to go into the woods means more than just confronting their own dark side. In this film’s case, that’s to not simply reach that happy ending, but to see what kind of reparations follow afterwards.

The Baker’s indecisiveness develops in ways that’s expected for an Aesop’s tale; a lesson is learned at a cost of someone’s expense. The way the songs are written to express his (and the other character’s) emotions are a testament to why the original Broadway musical works and is regularly studied. A lot of exposition is expressed to move the story along than to revel in the moment, and that makes for a different kind of movie musical. The issue here is that not many of these songs are truly catchy or memorable. Plus, there’s no dance! By definition, a musical requires the performers to move to the music, not stroll or stride.

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Only a few songs are a true Broadway spectacle. In the Princes’ (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) song “Agony,” Pine is wonderful to watch as a self-absorbed heir to the throne. With his brother, they are more like two Playboys searching the woods looking for trysts and serenades with any fair maidens they chance upon. Meryl Streep is certainly a delight when she sings
“Stay with Me” to Rapunzel; this number certainly works in contrast to her over-the-top portrayal of the witch. And Johnny Depp’s very brief appearance as the wolf is just devilishly delightful as he skulks about singing “Hello, Little Girl” and unfortunately he did not have a bigger role in the story. His time in this film was very short.

When compared to the play, the spoken word moments are chuckle worthy than acts of comedic genius. The performances are decent and Corden is perfect as the gentle but yet foolish Baker. In some ways, he’s like Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings films. Thankfully he learns fast and becomes a lot more confident by the film’s end. But for folklore experts, they may wonder if he has a butcher and candlestick maker friend? The village he is from is hardly explored and that missing element is distracting because there is no ideas on what any of these character’s daily lives are like beyond finding their tale being developed whenever they enter into the woods.

This movie is not just based on the nursery rhymes (namely “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella”) of Mother Goose. When the works of Brothers Grimm are also an influence, namely Rapunzel, the darker themes gets amped up. That means somebody is going to die, whether its premeditated or not. That dark undertone does not help make this play a kid-friendly product (some fans of Disney musicals may prefer Enchanted over this). The movie downplays the deaths, which happen under different circumstances, and the question of whether that change is needed can be debated. Instead, the show feels more like a fractured fairy tale that it ultimately is.

3 Stars out of 5

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