WRITTEN REVIEW – Into The Woods (2015)

Into The Woods
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: James Lapine
Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine & Johnny Depp
Music: Stephen Sondheim
Certificate: PG
Release Date: January 9th 2015

While the Walt Disney company have been an industry juggernaut thanks to their countless animated fairy-tale adaptations that have been embraced by audiences all over the world, it’s only been recently where Disney have attempted to capitalise on this success with live-action adaptations in the same vein. However, these have been met with mixed results with ‘Enchanted‘ and ‘Oz the Great and Powerful‘ being well received by critics and audiences, but ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ was a very weak adaptation/sequel and ‘Maleficent‘ was one of the worst films of 2014. Although those last two ended up being huge financial successes so, despite their terrible quality, Disney is laughing all the way to the bank.

In the near future Disney will be releasing live-action versions of ‘Cinderella‘, ‘The Jungle Book‘ along with a sequel to 2010’s ‘Alice in Wonderland‘. But before those films, we have ‘Into The Woods‘ which takes many famous fairy-tale characters and blends them together into a star-studded musical. Originally made for the stage with music by Stephen Sondheim, ‘Into The Woods‘ comes at an awkward time for the movie musical. Despite having a resurgence with 2001’s ‘Moulin-Rouge!‘ and 2002’s ‘Chicago‘ (directed by Rob Marshall who helms ‘Into The Woods’) there have been frequent flops such as ‘RENT‘, ‘Across the Universe‘ and ‘Rock of Ages‘ as well as massive successes like ‘Mamma Mia!‘ and ‘Les Misérable‘. Can ‘Into The Woods‘ find success in such an uncertain genre as well as Disney’s mixed live-action fairytale track record?
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Into The Woods‘ follows the same plot as the Broadway Production and is set in a fairytale land where many familiar pop-culture icons live. Yet the movie actually centres on two original characters; a baker (Cordon) and his wife (Blunt). One day, they’re visited by an old, decrepit witch (Streep) who promises to give them a child that the two have been yearning for as long as they bring her some ingredients for a potion which will also restore her youth. But they have to gather the four ingredients in 3 days in time for a blue moon. Along the way, the Baker and his Wife encounter Cinderella (Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Daniel Hittlestone) amongst others.

The set-up is promising with the Witch/Plot-Device giving the Baker and his Wife an excuse to wander into the nearby woods in search for the items they need in order to have a child. However, ‘Into the Woods‘ isn’t just an anthology or walking-tour of classic fairytales as all the individual characters have their own storylines which frequently intersect with each other in natural ways allowing the movie to move at a good pace and be continually engaging. ‘Into The Woods‘ is also working from a strong emotional core as the reason the Witch is old is because of selfish actions from the Baker’s father, so he feels obligated to make amends for what his father did in order to help his wife.
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The first two acts also have an interesting moral and theme at play. For the ingredients, the Baker and his Wife need “A cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold” and these items are in the possession of other fairytale characters with their own stories at play. However, the Baker and his Wife, at first, attempt to use underhanded ways to attain these items, for example the Baker attempts to simply steal Little Red Riding Hood’s red cloak but finds that he’s unable to do it. But after rescuing her from the Big Bad Wolf (Depp) she gives him the cloak as a gift. The Baker and his Wife have to be selfless and be helpful to others in order to attain their rewards.

It also feels wholly natural as to how these stories intersect and progress, in particular the encounters between the Wife and Cinderella, who keeps running away from the ball where Prince Charming (Pine) is looking for a wife and also the encounters between Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, with Little Red Riding Hood daring Jack to steal more items from the Giants at the top of a Beanstalk. The plot-device of the three midnights until the blue moon also gives a tangible sense of progression as well as providing a strong foothold for a three-act structure. You can almost imagine where the intermission would have taken place in the stage production.
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Speaking of stage production, while Rob Marshell’s directorial work recently has left much to be desired with ‘Nine‘ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides‘, he’s back on form much like he was with ‘Chicago‘ by whole-heartedly embracing the stage-aesthetic. ‘Into The Woods‘ feels like a wholly accurate interpretation as to how the scenes and frequent song numbers are staged. At the end of one song, the Witch appears on top of a large stone in the woods surrounded by some of the cast members and it feels like something that would happen in the stage show with the Witch appearing centre-stage in a flash of light and smoke. After being suitably reminded at just how badly movie musical numbers can be staged and filmed, ‘Into The Woods‘ feels like a stage musical at its heart but is able to use clever choreography and committed actors to make those sensibilities translate to the screen.
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One of the highlights of the movie is the song “Agony” where Prince Charming and his brother (Billy Magnussen) are trying to out-do each other in terms of how much heartache they’re in whilst on the top of a rocky waterfall. The way it’s staged and performed feels like it was ripped out of broadway, but the subtle sight-gags such as the two trying to rip open their shirts more than the other as well as subtle, envious expressions that wouldn’t connect with a physically distant audience member watching a stage play, which helps justify a movie adaptation. Another well-staged highlight, “On the Steps of the Palace”, has Cinderella soliloquising on the steps of the palace (clever title) but it’s taking place in a freeze-frame with the Prince only a few metres behind her frozen in place in low-lighting as Cinderella walks up and down the steps. Rob Marshall’s attention to detail with the sets, the lighting and the costumes makes this transition to the big-screen work wonders.

As stated previously, the actors are completely committed to the theatrical sensibilities and the ensemble cast truly is terrific. James Corden, while playing himself, makes a great fit for the Baker with great comedic timing and an “every-man” look which makes him a relatable audience cipher. Musical veterans Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche in the ‘Les Misérables‘ movie) and Lilla Crawford (Annie in the 2012 Broadway Revival) are great, confident child actors and Anna Kendrick (from the 1998 Broadway Musical ‘High Society‘ as well as the movie ‘Pitch Perfect’) is a great Cinderella. However, the big surprises are Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife who shows incredible vocal range as well as an endearing warmness and sincerity and also Chris Pine as Prince Charming being a perfect on-point parody of an ideal Disney Prince. With ‘Into The Woods‘ and ‘Horrible Bosses 2‘, it’s clear that Chris Pine has found his footing as an incredible comedic actor.

While many may sigh at the idea of Johnny Depp being caked in make-up again playing a strange, quirky character, I’m delighted to report that he’s brilliant in the short, but sweet role of the Big Bad Wolf where he gets a great musical number with the playful yet lasciviousness “Little Girl”.
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Unsurprisingly, however, the show is frequently stolen by Meryl Streep. While she’s proven her incredible acting abilities countless times (she’s been nominated 18 times for acting Oscars and 29 Golden Globe nominations) and she also proved her singing chops in ‘Mamma Mia!‘ it’s still not hard to be blown away by her performance here. Of course, the part of the Witch include some show-stopping musical numbers such as “Stay With Me” and “The Last Midnight” but she has a magnetic presence as the old witch and is also able to transition seamlessly to the younger version later one with a wholly different attitude and persona. Not to mention, she really suits the blue hair and the glamorous blue-dress she gets to wear later on.

Only Meryl Streep can be nominated for over 400 awards over a nearly 40 year screen career yet still surprise and blow away audience members.

I would love to end this review right now and give ‘Into The Woods‘ a wholehearted recommendation because the first 80 minutes of this movie is thoroughly enchanting. The plot is simple, but well-structured, the cast are brilliant, there’s a terrific energy to the entire enterprise and this great musical seems to end with a heart-warming conclusion.
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But the movie has an entire third-act left. And it’s in this third act where ‘Into The Woods‘ takes a massive down-spiral in quality.

I understand that the third act of ‘Into The Woods‘ is accurate to the stage play and while it may work there (I’ve not seen the show, so I can’t comment) it most definitely does not work here. However, I’ve heard that it’s not uncommon for many audience members to actually leave the stage show during the intermission so they don’t have to sit through the final act.

While I can’t talk so much about what happens in the third act due to plot spoilers, needless to say, it doesn’t make much sense. There are blatant contradictions to what’s come before, giant plot-holes that are never acknowledged, characters act uncharacteristically based on the whims of the plot, a legion of loose-threads are left dangling when it comes to certain plot-points and characters (many of whom flat out disappear with no indication as to where they’ve gone) all leading to an emotionally hollow conclusion to many of the character’s arcs that doesn’t ring true for a single second.
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God, this is sounding really vague. So if you’ve seen the movie or the stage show (or don’t mind spoilers) I’ll detail my problems with the final act at the very bottom of this review underneath the score.

But even if the plot and characters were sound, this isn’t just a case of the movie being a couple of scenes too long. This is an ENTIRE THIRD ACT that feels completely extraneous. This is exacerbated by the fact that the great staging, energy and production design from the first two acts has completely faded away by this point. This could be chalked up to the movie being unable to maintain its energy throughout its entire 124 minute runtime (‘Into The Woods‘ lacks an Intermission which might be why this transition works in the stage show), but it feels more like Rob Marshall included this third act as an obligation to the source material as opposed to something that benefits the movie and its themes as a whole. The clever staging that preceded the third act musical numbers are completely absent and the cast don’t seem as committed to their roles as they were before. It’s slow, lacks energy, has a bland aesthetic and the entire third act of ‘Into The Woods‘ is an exercise in how frequently audiences members will check their watches.

This is painfully disheartening because everything before that third act was so engaging and so freakin’ ALIVE. It was such a fun and enjoyable musical up until that point that initially ended on such a well-deserved note before it felt obligated to keep going. Remove the third act and we could have had something as great as Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning ‘Chicago‘, but instead we have a film that’s woefully undercut by its ending.

Into The Woods‘, before it gets to its third act, is an immensely enjoyable and fun flick with great music, some great moments of dark but family-friendly humour, a well assembled plot and an admirable commitment to its theatrical origins. The cast are game for their over-the-top roles and the production design is a sight to behold on the big screen. ‘Into The Woods‘ is so good that Johnny Depp can make a cameo as one of the quirky characters audiences have detested him playing recently and still come out as a scene-stealer. But that third act…that was not the happily ever after this movie deserved.

I give ‘Into The Woods’ 3 stars out of 5.
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Okay, now let’s talk about the third act.

SPOILER ALERT
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Okay, first of all, one of the big plot-points of ‘Into The Woods‘ is the death of the baker’s wife. Here’s the thing; why can’t the Witch bring her back to life? She brought the cow back to life with no problem at all earlier in the movie. The Baker, despite SEEING HER revive the cow, doesn’t ask her or bring this up when he hears the news. You could argue that the Witch doesn’t have her powers anymore since she couldn’t make any spell work against Rapunzel’s Prince earlier in the movie but…that lack of magical power is never explained! Why can’t she use her powers then!? She also never thinks to revive Jack’s mother who dies by…falling on a branch? What?

But to make matters worse, the Witch is…SOMEHOW…able to use her powers again at the end of her song “The Last Midnight” to conjure up a storm and…turn herself into tar? What? Oh, she turned herself into tar because it was a convenient way to kill the giant. What are the odds…?

Speaking of the Giant, Little Red Riding Hood has a strange digression where she questions whether or not they should kill the giant because it’s like a person. This potential opportunity for questioning the ideals of old fairytales in a clever way is NEVER brought up again and they kill the giant without hesitation.

There’s also a really lifeless song in the third act called “No One Is Alone” where Cinderella and the Baker explain to Little Red Riding Hood and Jack that parents aren’t always right…even though we’ve hardly spent any time with parents in question so the characters and audience have zero frame of reference!

Prince Charming, Rapunzel and Rapunzel’s Prince completely disappear from the movie with nary a farewell or a hint of closure and the song/scene between Prince Charming and the Baker’s Wife feels massively out of place as well as very out of character for both characters when you take their previous actions into account.

Also,  Little Red Riding Hood just decides to move in with the widower Baker without even knowing if her home or family members have been destroyed/killed by the giant. Cinderella has an excuse because she hates her family and Jack’s mother has been killed. But what about Little Red Riding Hood’s family?

Urgh…I wanted to love this movie but that third act is just a trainwreck.

Posted In: 2015 Reviews Current Reviews Reviews

Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 14th Jan 15

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