Now that the post-Chrismas fuzzies have well and truly disappeared, one can properly consider the latest offering from Disney pictures, Into the Woods. Adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 sage production of the same name, the film flirts with adult territory, danger and lust. The tagline? “Be careful what you wish for”. Cinderella it ain’t, instead taking it’s cues from recent dark reboots of fairy tales like Snow White and the Huntsman and Maleficent.”
The difference between the above films and Into the Woods is that it isn’t an reboot. It’s an adaptation of an adaptation. This prevents gaping plot holes and non-canonical references for the most part, but can also leave the audience feeling somewhat befuddled. The story centres on the otherwise unnamed Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), a couple desperate for a child. When they discover that they have been cursed never to conceive, they set out to the mysterious woods to collect objects to lift the spell. Simultaneously, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack the giant-slayer head off for forest shenanigans. The opening twelve-minute musical number depicting this is one of the film’s strongest, guaranteed to stick in the head after watching. What marks Into the Woods then is that the woods have a power of their own, and all is not what it seems there.
It’s certainly an atypical Disney film. The roles of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ become blurred as motivations change and mistakes are made in the woods, particularly in the film’s darker second act. While it does explore some adult themes, the film is still comedic. Most of this comes from the bumbling but well meaning Baker, played effortlessly by Corden. His rel;ationship with his wife (a terrific Blunt) serves up some of the funniest – and most poignant – moments of the film, tying together what could be a very messy piece. Meryl Streep surprises no-one with a fantastic performance as The Witch. Her character serves as explainer for the film’s moral code: “I’m not good, I’m not bad, I’m just right”, she claims, as the characters are faced with yet another difficult decision. The Witch is the most complex, interesting character in Into the Woods, and Streep’s performance and vocals are worth savouring.
Yes, it is a musical. The songbook is mostly classical musical style with a few standing out as hits. Much of the film is sung and the cast do a fine job of this difficult task, with a few execptions that mercifully aren’t given too much to do. The calibre of the acting varies too; next to Blunt, Corden and Streep, many suffer a little, be it through underuse (I’d watch a whole film of Chris Pine’s hilarious Prince Charming) or underacting. The normally bankable Anna Kendrick is guilty here, turning in a fairly dull performance as Cinderella. Minor chracters like Christine Baranski’s Wicked Stepmother are a delight, in the way a rarely-seen pantomime dame is.
The film varies wildly in tone, making it a difficult watch in places. However, overall it is a stronger fairytale reboot than most Its bright spots shine and its darkness plumbs the very depths of human anxiety: that there is no happy ending. Despite its flaws, I challenge readers to name a more challenging, interesting or thought-provoking film told entirely through music.