Yesterday, after packing all of our Christmas stuff away for another year, we decided to go and see a movie. There were three we wanted to see - one was in 3D (which I can't stand), the other not at our theatre of choice, so we landed on Into the Woods - the new Disney adaptation of the famous Sondheim musical. I didn't know much about it, never having seen the show, but I did know it would be edgy and adult (as all Sondheim shows seems to be), and there would be singing (which apparently came as a shock to some movie goers - DUH -it's advertised as a musical people!)
I must confess that I didn't have high hopes - likely because we had just watched the movie version of Les Miserables. Just because people can act does not make them a singer so why try and force it?
Let me say straight up that this cast can sing- in most cases extremely well.
That was a relief.
Now the story. One of the interesting things about Into the Woods is how it blends three favourite fairy tales into one tale. Some might wonder about an adult movie being based on fairy tales . . . the counterpoint is simple - have you every truly read the tales by the Grimm brothers?
A little girl and her grandmother are swallowed whole by a wolf, whose stomach is then slit open to retrieve them. A young woman’s cruel stepsisters chop off chunks of their feet to fit into her gold slippers in a blind attempt to land a Prince. And a boy gets taken in by a woman offering him shelter, then robs them blind and kills her husband.
These are stories intended for children.
To call fairy tales dark would be an understatement. And yet, these are the stories we’re raised with — albeit often in sanitized, Disney-fied adaptations. As violent and occasionally traumatizing as these fairy tales are, they still offer the traditional “happily ever after” formula. Especially in their modern, kid-friendly iterations — which cut out many of the more nightmare-inducing elements of the traditional folk tales upon which they were based — fables that were dark morality tales designed to scare the crap out of children.
There you have it.
The mishmash fairy take of Into the Woods is told through the eyes of a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who want to have a child but have been cursed to be barren forever by a neighboring Witch (Meryl Streep). But when the Witch offers to reverse the curse in exchange for certain objects, the married duo sets off into the woods and directly into the lives of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from from beanstalk stories, among others.
As I mentioned, the cast is excellent and each of these fantastic characters works even better when they're playing off one another. It gels; it feels like a legit ensemble and that's, well, magical. However, this really is Meryl Streep's show. Streep soars as the manic, rapping Witch. In the end I was left wondering if there was anything at all that she can not play?
The one discordant moment for me was Johnny Depp as the wolf. It verges on the creepy as the leering wolf eyes Little Red Riding Hood with a sly “what’s in your basket?” In the play Little Red is played by an older actress (Crawford is 12) and the wolf struts about with a penis attached to his costume so the sexualized songs sort of make sense. In the movie Depp is clearly a man - with some wolf-like characteristics so when he starts in on "Hello Little Girl” a sleazy ditty by the wolf as he ogles his intended dinner. “Look at that flesh / Pink and plump / Hello, little girl / Tender and fresh / Not one lump.” If child molesters had their own country, this would be their national anthem. I confess that I was squirming with discomfort there.
One of the interesting things about this material is the way the story has two parts. The first part traces the intertwined stories as they make wishes and choices in an attempt to lead a happier life. In some versions - particularly those geared towards children - the story just stops here and the characters live happily ever after. But in the play the stories keep going, and cross into each other, until soon "happily ever after" isn’t such a sure thing. In the movie the second part has sanitized some aspects of the play but it is far more dark as the consequences of making wishes is revealed with death, mayhem, and sadness. As Cinderella confesses when she realizes life with Prince Charming may not be all that: “It’s not quite what I expected.”
The way the two mini-plays (or halves of the film) differ from one another is significant and it is this difference that reveals the central themes to the story. This theme stresses moral ambiguity - everyone has a point of view as to what is right. They all conflict, and there are layers of morality and degrees of acceptance of responsibility for their actions. One theme is whether the ends justify the means.
Note Prince Charming's answer to Cinderella when she tells him she knows of his infidelity. "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."
It is a complicated piece. There are multiple themes - morality, parenting, responsibility, A thread repeated through the play is ... "You are nice, but not good." emphasizing the difference.
In the end the characters arrive at a modified version of their original dream. None of them has a complete version of what they originally wished for. What they have managed to do is find some normalcy and balance in the reality that presents itself to them in spite of the disappointment of adulthood.
Funny, fractured fairy tales are nothing new but this film really blossoms in its second half, which pushes beyond happily ever after into themes of death, infidelity and parental responsibility.
The woods are deeper and thornier than you’d imagine in a movie that’s the best of its kind since The Princess Bride.