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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » Into the Woods
Into the Woods
Disney // PG // December 25, 2014
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted December 23, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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Every good fairy tale has some type of message that it's audiences can learn from. It can be one aimed at our moral compasses, or it can ask for us to look at something with a different perspective. The one for Rob Marshall's Into the Woods screen adaptation of the popular musical tells us what message it's trying to convey before we even walk into the cinema. The tagline states "Be Careful What You Wish For," which also happens to be the driving force behind the entire production. Humans naturally want more than they have, so they continue to wish for something more. James Lapine's musical asks viewers to reflect upon themselves, and determine that they're grateful for what they already have in life.

When the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have difficulty trying to have a child, an ugly witch (Meryl Streep) appears with the news that they have had a curse placed upon them. The only way to reverse it is by collecting a list of magical items from classical fairy tales in order to finally start their family. This puts the couple on a scavenger hunt in order to find each and every item before time runs out, in which case they will never have the chance of having children.

Into the Woods begins by briefly introducing each of the fairy tales that will be explored through the duration of the picture. They include Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Repunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). What happens when all of these stories are in walking distance from one another, and they directly affect the outcome of each other's story? We're left with a compilation of snippets from each. While the cut-aways may be a bit anti-climatic, this allows the pacing to progress a bit smoother through the film's two hour running time. It becomes rather clear that in order for these characters to wish for the things that they do, they must be willing to challenge fate, which is often blamed on various fantastical elements in their lives. Each character serves their own purpose in this universe, as grand punishments become clear for those who have fought to change their fate in some way. However, Lapine's screenplay heavily utilizes humor in order to contrast with the overall darkness of the material. While some of the jokes prove to fall flat, others are actually quite funny. For example, the Baker's Wife is perhaps the most humorous in her reactions to the plot beats, as tensions continue to escalate. However, it tries to be consistently funny, and Lapine's screenplay really isn't as witty as it thinks it is.

Regardless of whether or not you have seen the original musical, fans of the genre will be questioning how the songs are. Unlike the likes of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, nothing here is very catchy. You won't be leaving the cinema singing or humming any of the songs. Depending upon the individual who is singing within a given scene, the film is going for a different feel. Some are known for providing some of the more personal and emotional tunes, while others are all about being funny. Both of these rely on your existing feelings about the characters and Lapine's sense of humor. While some of the songwriting is quite smart, other songs simply don't work very well. The two songs that engaged me the most were "Your Fault" and "Last Midnight," which actually happen to play one after the other. These are the only two songs that had me captivated by screenwriter James Lapine's writing. Both of which are quite strong pieces. It's just a shame that there aren't more songs like these. If you're anything like me, then you aren't much of a fan of musicals to begin with. Fortunately, Into the Woods isn't shrill in the way that many others in the genre are.

Surprisingly enough, Disney is working with an extremely dark piece of source material here. Even in its film adaptation, it's quite shocking to see it in Disney's catalog of titles. However, the more disturbing concepts are handled well in order to ensure that this can be enjoyed by the entire family. Many of such scenes will likely go right over the heads of younger viewers, and directly to older audiences. If nothing else, it's great to see Disney make a daring move on a musical project that has some bite to it. The first two acts prove to be rather entertaining, although the third act is where the majority of the picture's problems come from. Into the Woods is about thirty minutes too long, as it plunges further into the story of Jack and the Giants. Much of it feels largely unnecessary, as the film outstays its welcome with tacky character progressions. This is a problematic conclusion that does the exact opposite of increasing the tension, as it truly begins to wear on the audience.

When it comes to the performances, Rob Marshall has brought on some excellent heavy hitters to portray this wide array of characters. Emily Blunt is outstanding as the Baker's Wife. She delivers the most genuine laughs, and simply makes this a convincing character in this fantastical world. James Corden is strong as the Baker himself, especially when he's working with Blunt on screen. Anna Kendrick once again delivers her charm as Cinderella. The character has some of the most personal scenes to be found in the film, and Kendrick handles each moment of it with finesse. Meryl Streep is exceptional as the Witch. Even the most subtle of body language is so utterly transfixing, making this an impactful performance. Even Johnny Depp is incredibly fitting in the role of the Wolf. I'm not much of a fan of him, but he works so well in this creepy character, as he sets his sights upon Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. It's a small part, but he certainly leaves an impression here. There aren't really any weak links here, as they all aid in putting this world of fairy tales together.

Into the Woods boasts a stunning atmosphere that truly brings this world to life. Rob Marshall delivers on the fairy tale aspects, while incorporating a darker look to some of the most famous fairy tales to have ever been written. The sets are primarily what sell the fairy tale aspect, as it creates an extraordinary sense of wonderment and beauty. However, darker vibrant colors are found in the foreground, as Marshall doesn't shy away from utilizing the picture's darkest aspects in the delivery of the overall atmosphere. The costume design and make-up are both award-worthy, as they manage to elevate both the beautiful and the gritty aspects of Marshall's visual adaptation of this popular musical. This is a film with a truly inspired sense of visuals.

Coming from somebody who isn't very fond of musicals, Into the Woods isn't bad. However, it isn't great, either. The film doesn't do very much to be different from what many of us know about these stories, although it still manages to be rather entertaining through the majority of its running time. Unfortunately, the final act greatly hinders the feature, as it begins to outstay its welcome. The majority of the story's charm actually comes from the infectious performances of Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and Meryl Streep. With the help of great sets and wonderful costume design, it also manages to be a visual success. Into the Woods falters on more than a few notes, but it still makes for an enjoyable film. Rent it.

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