You say “mash-up” and I say “train wreck.” Into the Woods (opening today) is based on the popular Tony-award-winning Stephen Sondheim musical, featuring a story that, ahem, “mashes up” and interweaves various classic fairy tales into one. There is Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and hints of Thumbelina. There is a wicked old witch played by Meryl Streep and a Big Bad Wolf portrayed by Johnny Depp lurking about. What could possibly go wrong? Hold on, I’ll tell you.
In the opening musical number, a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are cursed by a wicked witch (Streep) that they will not be able to have a child unless the witch is brought a series of items that she needs to reverse a spell that in turn was cast on her, making her ugly. The items are: A slipper as pure as gold, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the cow as white as milk. If you know your fairy tale lore, you can guess as to where and from whom the baker and his wife can find such items.
Of course, each of the others are dealing with their own (known) issues. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) needs to get that house cleaned up before she can attend the big festival hosted by the handsome Prince (Chris Pine), avoiding the ridicule of her evil stepmother (Christing Baranski) and two stepsisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard). A different Prince (Billy Magnussen) is pining for the attention of the long-haired maiden, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) who is being held atop a tower with no doors or stairs. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman) cannot get their snow white cow to produce milk and of course, the little kleptomaniac, Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) must be wary of the Wolf (Depp) on her way to grandmother’s house.
All of this glorious interconnecting is quite clever, and the story is smart in how it tangles all of this into one glorious ball of childhood memories. The first half-hour or so, is actually quite good and as you can gather from the above description, this version of the play features a star-studded cast, many of whom give performances worth remembering (mainly Streep, Blunt, Corden and Pine).
But there is unfortunately way too much that I’m trying to forget. I was completely shaken that the building story comes to a tidy end just over the half-way mark of the film. They might as well have just pulled a curtain over the screen and announced an intermission, before resuming for an all-new adventure in the second half. This may have worked on a stage, but it was a horrible segue to behold on screen. What was a cutesy, fantastical fable suddenly ends and shifts into a boring, painstakingly banal revenge story, as a Giant ascends from the sky to seek revenge on the established characters. Pun intended, this was a giant let-down.
Not having seen the play, I must also say that I was very underwhelmed with the music. The opening number “Into the Woods” was catchy, and a duet between pompous Princes was fairly amusing, but overall the repetitiveness of the melodies had me wishing for the stroke of midnight to come, making all of this just go away.
With all of the fairy-tales being swirled around, I also found this movie a bit dark and creepy. That won’t stop parents from bringing their children, as the Disney label instantly makes this an attractive family-film. But you tell me, for example, if that big bad wolf is simply hungry, or possibly horny. Very creepy indeed.
With the talented cast, colorful characters and the clout of Sondheim’s reputation riding behind Into the Woods, I was very disappointed in the magic brew director Rob Marshall was able to concoct. It was a visual achievement for sure, but this time, the shoe just didn’t fit.
Genre: Comedy, Family, Fantasy
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes, Rated PG
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Meryl Streep, Lucy Punch, Christine Baranski, James Corden, Tracey Ullman, Mackenzie Mauzy, Lilla Crawford
Directed by Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Nine, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago)
Opens locally on Thursday, Dec 25, 2014 (check for show times).