Movie Review: “Into the Woods” (Rob Marshall, USA 2014)

Fairy tales are bizarre. They are full of sexual innuendo, corrupted morals, oversimplified ethical dilemmas, bizarre behavior, intense violence, and general weirdness. I have often thought that much of the weirdness inherent in most fairy tales is fairly well exemplified by a fundamental problem I have long had with the story of Cinderella: how the hell does the prince apparently have no idea what she looks like after dancing with her all night? Is he just a pervy sort who spent all night staring at her chest? Does he have prosopagnosia? Is he actually in love with the shoe and just looking for anyone who fits it? Is there some ancient curse on his family that can only be lifted by marrying a woman with exactly that size foot? Is he a very focused foot fetishist?

And of course the real logical answer is that the “dancing” wasn’t dancing at all, but rather an activity that did not force the prince to view Cinderella’s face. You can use your imagination there; but, especially considering the prince’s possibly already-established foot fetish, there are plenty of directions to go. Dancing is always a metaphor for sexual activity anyway, and the specifics of what’s happening around this dancing suggest something other than just making out. So, is there actually a veiled sexual agenda to Cinderella?

The real answer is probably just as simple as that it’s a plot hole that we’re supposed to ignore. But the plot hole isn’t the only problem. There is sexuality involved in the story, as it is after all a coming-of-age story about a young woman reaching adulthood, and doing so (as fairy tales seemingly always require) by marrying a prince. There is a corrupt moral purpose the story serves, suggesting as it does that a woman’s purpose in life is marriage and her highest goal should be marriage to a man of the highest social stratum. The stepmother who prefers her own daughters to Cinderella can’t just be a conflicted woman who is unable or unwilling to treat her husband’s child as equal to hers–she’s evil (well–wicked), making any and her relationship to Cinderella easily defined. And does it get gorier and more bizarre than the stepmother’s cutting off bits of her daughters’ feet to get them into the slipper?

In 1986, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim turned the same dark comic eye that had made a brilliant musical about a Victorian London serial killer in Sweeney Todd to fairy tales in his musical Into the Woods, and he pointed out everything weird about them. The latent sexuality became blatant sexuality, including a well-hung wolf who sings, “Hello, little girl” with a lascivious smile. The corrupted, simplified moral lessons change from, “anyone can be a princess!” to “Be careful when stealing from giants in the sky.” The constant love-sick swooning by “Princes Charming” becomes a pair of “charming, not sincere” princes who insist that they suffer an agony unlike any other for not being able to marry the girls they want (though one appears to be visiting his lady’s bedchamber alone at night, seemingly having his cake and eating it too). Magic and curses show up at every turn, motivating nearly every plot twist. I’ll be honest that I’m far from a musical theater buff, and even within the musical theater that I know, Into the Woods is far from my favorite, but it has some fantastic moments and its concept of playing with fairy tales like it does is pretty spectacular.

However, there are clear issues with the idea of Disney making the film version of this play. For a play whose humor largely depends on pointing out the extremity of the violence and sexuality involved in traditional fairy tales, Disney seems an odd choice, likely as it is to remove that very violence and sexuality. Further, Disney’s devotion to a more modern pop music sound and chart hits would seem to make it likely to twist Sondheim’s music (and perhaps even more so, his always-brilliant lyrics) into something fit for a duet between Peabo Bryson and Carrie Underwood that can make for a radio single under four minutes.

Still, there were things that gave me some hope for this film. First, Rob Marshall, while his film debut is severely overrated, did make an excellent film in Memoirs of a Geisha (USA 2005), and he definitely has a fantastic sense of how to use sound in his work. Second, Emily Blunt is in it, and, well, she’s awesome. Plus, it would be interesting to see her once without time travel involved. Third, James Corden is someone I have always liked and always wanted to see more of. Fourth, Anna Kendrick, the beautiful woman who stole Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, USA 2009) from its nominal star, George Clooney.

Unfortunately, the film turned out to be a mess. It seems clear that James Lapine, Sondheim’s collaborator on the original musical, and Marshall put together a list of scenes, moments, and songs that they wanted to keep, put them together, and then tried to make up ways to get from each to the next. The songs are all truncated into extreme repetitiveness and the already-convoluted plot goes from messy to so full of holes that it doesn’t come close to holding together. There really isn’t any need to go into specifics, because the entire film is seemingly a random selection of scenes rather than any coherent narrative.

Further, Rob Marshall and his longtime cinematographer Dion Beebe are more interested in just making sure that their film does not look like a play than they are in saying anything visually. It relies heavily on digital effects, showing us overhead shots of the woods and the surrounding kingdom, the inside of a wolf’s belly, and even the beanstalk that serves as a plot point but is hardly necessary to see. Even the woods themselves are full of digital enhancement, and it’s the type of enhancement that wouldn’t be necessary if Beebe and Marshall instead were willing to use lighting, lenses, and similar photographic effects to enhance the mood of the forest.

The cast all performs well enough, though none of them has a terribly difficult part as far as acting is concerned. Corden, Blunt, and Kendrick are every bit as appealing as they usually are, but I’m not thinking any more of them now than I did before. Meryl Streep is, unsurprisingly, great. Everyone also sings well enough, and that part is far more difficult than the acting. However, again, nobody stands out as anything special. It should be noted that, for all the attention the advertising gave to Johnny Depp, he is on screen for about two minutes, and the Wolf’s part bears heavy scars from Disney’s excising of any overt sexuality from the play.

Into the Woods is a great example of what Disney can do to ruin something: by making a thoroughly un-family-friendly musical comedy about fairy tales into a straight-up fairy tale, they turned the satire into a poor imitation. Marshall and company seem fundamentally to have misunderstood what made the stage play effective, seemingly thinking that it’s just the mashing together of numerous fairy tales and the melodies of a few choruses. Because of that failure to understand, they have created a film that is nothing short of a mess. It’s a professionally-made mess, with good performances from its actors both singing and otherwise and some excellent set pieces, but it remains a mess nonetheless.

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