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Into the Woods

D: Rob Marshall / 125m

Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding

In a fairy tale world, a baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) are longing for a child, while Cinderella (Kendrick) wishes she could find a way out of the endless drudgery that constitutes living with her wicked stepmother (Baranski) and her two horrible daughters, Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch). Nearby, Jack (Huttlestone) and his mother (Ullman) wish for their fortunes to improve, and Rapunzel (Mauzy) spends time with her prince (Magnussen) against the wishes of her “mother”. All these characters wish for better lives, and all of them find ways to achieve what they want – but not in the ways they expect.

The baker and his wife are informed by their neighbour, a witch (Streep), that she placed a curse on his family line after his father stole from her garden (including some beans). But if they can find a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold then the curse can be lifted in three nights’ time when there is a blue moon. They meet Jack who is on his way to market to sell his cow and buy it from him for a handful of beans the baker has found in his father’s coat. Meanwhile, Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) encounters the Wolf (Depp) who takes her grandmother’s place. The baker saves her and as a reward, gives him her cape.

Jack returns home with the beans but his mother is angry with him and throws the beans on the ground. Cinderella attends the Festival at the castle of the Prince (Pine) and he becomes besotted by her. She leaves at midnight and meets the baker’s wife, but the baker’s wife doesn’t realise until too late about Cinderella’s golden shoes. The next day, a giant beanstalk has grown in Jack’s garden; he climbs it and returns with five gold coins that he uses to buy back his cow. But the baker’s wife has lost it in the woods. However, she overhears the two princes talking about the women they love and she learns about Rapunzel and her golden hair. She takes some of the hair and by chance she and her husband find the cow. That night she tries to wrest a shoe from Cinderella as she flees the castle again but fails. The next day, a giant descends the beanstalk after Jack steals a golden harp from him; Jack chops down the beanstalk and the giant falls to his death.

With just the one item to procure, the baker’s wife intercepts Cinderella on her return from the castle. She offers her a bean in return for a shoe but Cinderella declines the offer and the bean is discarded on the ground. Instead the baker’s wife offers her own shoes as trade, and Cinderella’s shoe is hers. With all four items collected, and after a couple of minor problems are solved, the witch removes the curse. The baker’s wife falls pregnant, and Cinderella and her Prince are finally united. But on the day of their marriage, their happy-ever-after future is shattered by the arrival of the giant’s wife who has travelled down the second beanstalk and means to destroy everything unless the person who killed her husband is handed over.

INTO THE WOODS

A conflation of well-known fairy tales blended together in a wraparound story that allows them to occur concurrently, Into the Woods is, superficially at least, a cleverly devised adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s original musical. With a screenplay by Lapine, and with changes and song omissions fully sanctioned by Sondheim himself, you could be forgiven for thinking that the movie is in safe hands. It has a great cast – most of whom have a proven track record with musicals – an Oscar-winning director at the helm (along with an Oscar-winning cinematographer, costume designer, and production designer), and a high recognition factor to boot. It’s well-staged, has a great deal of charm, and is often knowingly funny. But with all that, Into the Woods is a disappointing adaptation that badly loses its way once the curse is lifted and Cinderella marries her prince.

The movie’s problems are threefold. The first is that it’s curiously uninvolving, with none of the characters really making much of an impact. The witch (played with gusto by Streep) is too sympathetic to be truly threatening or frightening, while the baker and his wife appear at odds with each other on too many occasions for the viewer to be convinced they’d make good parents in the first place (at least the baker realises this about himself). Cinderella keeps running away from her prince, but without the usual stipulation of her magical transformation expiring at midnight, she loses all credibility for her actions. Little Red Riding Hood is the kind of precocious brat you hope does get eaten by the Wolf, Jack doesn’t appear to have two brain cells to rub together (‘magic” beans for a cow – even in the original story, really?), the Wolf is more creepy uncle than woodland predator, and the Prince is shallower than a puddle (though he is self-aware: as he tells the baker’s wife, “I was made to be charming, not sincere”).

The second problem is that with so much to fit in, the movie becomes more and more congested and strangely repetitive at the same time. The baker and his wife have the same argument at least twice, as does the baker and Jack, as does Jack and his mother. The same encounters happen in the woods over and over, but mostly to drive the narrative forward to the next musical interlude or the acquisition of the next object. Nothing seems to happen organically; it’s like a fairy tale greatest hits movie with songs. As a result of all this cramming, some storylines and characters are given less screen time than others, particularly Rapunzel who’s only in the movie to provide one of the minor problems mentioned when the curse is lifted (and whose hair grows back remarkably quickly after the baker’s wife cuts it off).

And lastly there’s the whole structure and content of the movie’s second half, with the notion of “happily ever after” quashed completely. After a first half that was at least intriguing to see how all the stories would intertwine, Into the Woods becomes a different movie altogether as the implications of past decisions make themselves felt, and a huge helping of regret all round is the order of the day. It’s a darker half to be sure, and it shows some characters making some uncharacteristic decisions and acting on impulses that previously weren’t part of their make up. Whatever the reason for this darker, gloomier conclusion it doesn’t work, and the songs reflect this, becoming more introspective and melancholic. And what few attempts there are to leaven the gloom with humour, fall flat on their respective faces. It’s a struggle to get through, and any viewer who does should reward themselves at the end of it.

At the helm, Marshall shows a distinctly uncertain approach to the material, his usual sure-footedness missing here and leading to scenes that don’t have the impact they should have, and songs that lose their way in the staging. It’s a movie that struggles to find its own identity, and despite the obvious talent involved, rarely hits the mark. Of the cast, Streep and Crawford come off best, though Ullman runs them a close third (and seems to understand the requirements of the material better than most). Pine is miscast, while Corden seems to be taking part in another movie altogether, and Kendrick looks embarrassed throughout. Depp plays the Wolf like a character from a Tex Avery cartoon, Blunt is earnest and bland, and Huttlestone dashes about to little effect. It’s a cast that’s pulling in different directions and rarely meeting in the middle.

The look of the movie is heavily stylised, which leads to the forest scenes becoming an awkward mix of location photography and interiors, and the Prince’s castle looking like two thirds of it has been created (and with a cursory attention to detail) in a computer. And there’s an incredibly strange moment when Little Red Riding Hood, having been eaten by the Wolf, finds herself in his stomach, a stomach that is represented as a room overrun by drapes (even on the floor). Why? Who knows. But it sums up the movie completely: unfocused and with too many questions left unanswered.

Rating: 4/10 – a movie that proves that pedigree is no guarantee of excellence – or even mediocrity at times – Into the Woods is a mish-mash of familiar fairy tales and post-modern deconstruction that never gels; sporadically entertaining, marginally successful, it’s a movie that’s difficult to take seriously, especially when the characters end up being menaced by Miss Jones from Rising Damp.

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