This movie was weird. It was funny, pretty, and engaging — but it was very, very weird.
For years I’ve heard the name Into The Woods traded back and forth among theater fans, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie trailer that I had a clear understanding of what the musical was about: fairy tales. Several fairy tales, and a couple of nursery rhymes, are all smooshed together into a single movie. No doubt ABC’s Once Upon A Time borrowed heavily from the premise. The theatrical adaptation, which opened this weekend, is a star-studded musical with fine acting, talented singers, and attractive set design. Yet for all that it has to offer — and it offers a lot — the ending of the film left me feeling disconnected from the characters and the story. Certain events appeared to happen for no reason, and the internal logic of the characters withered into confusion in the final act. Also, and as a true movie-musical fan I hate to admit this, the songs were all a bit too lengthy.
The premise is that the main archetypes of various fairy tales all live within proximity of a single magical forest, and their lives have all been affected, directly or indirectly, by a vengeful witch. A couple who wish to have a child are given three days to break a curse, and doing so requires that they collect several magical items, which are the possessions of other famous fairy tale characters. This results in everyone running around the same forest constantly being surprised to see one another, like a Grimm Brothers rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The most memorable character was the expectant mother played by Emily Blunt, who wished to have a child with her baker husband. Emily Blunt was a gift to this film (as she is to most films, let’s be honest). She sings well, but her true contribution is in presenting the most whole and three-dimensional character of the ensemble. Not only do we see her varied relationships with the rest of the characters (she gets around the most), but we see her balance multiple layers of intention and desire. Many characters from Into The Woods have one wish or one question that they’re facing, while Blunt’s character has at least three. She comes across as the most human, with believable flaws and sympathetic goals. She does things with her face that convey an entire paragraph without words. The scenes with her are better for it, and the scenes without her shine a little less brightly.
The other actors do quite well, particularly Daniel Huttlestone (Jack, aka Gavroche from Les Misérables), James Corden (the Baker) and Meryl Streep (the Witch), who displays a much broader vocal range here than I remember in Mama Mia!. Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) is innocuously charming, and well suited to her role. But I have to give a special shout out to Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince) for giving the most hilarious guest performance I’ve seen in a movie this year. His love-torn “Agony!” duet with Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince) was worth the price of admission. I full-on belly laughed in the theater during that number. If you haven’t heard it before, don’t look it up just yet. You’ll want to watch that song for the first time in context.
For all the charming, funny, or inventive elements in Into The Woods, the film has some significant drawbacks. Almost every song, even my favorite, went on for two or three verses too many. The film drags at several points, and the whole production begins to feel like you’re watching ants run around in a maze without learning or achieving anything significant. At one point a major character dies that leaves me unsettled, and then another major character dies in a way that utterly baffled me — it achieved nothing, it changed nothing, and no reason was given for it to happen. It felt like the actor had just decided to quit in a big musical hissy fit because they were as bored as I was beginning to feel. After the movie ended, I had to text a friend asking for a plot explanation for that death — never a good sign for one’s screenplay.
The film brings up several interesting philosophical questions about ambition versus fear, dreams versus comfort, and the morality of selfishness. For the first two-thirds of the film, these are well-conveyed within the text. Unfortunately, it begins to come apart at the seams in the last twenty minutes. Characters make judgment decisions that have little bearing on the reality of their situation. In particular, there is a moral dilemma brought up late in the game that has a major relevance to the conflict, yet that moral question is abandoned minutes later, as if the characters had promptly forgotten they even cared about it. The film raises more questions than it answers, and the most interesting questions are the ones left behind.
I suspect that the plot twists I disliked in the film are an essential part of the play, and that I might have had the same reaction sitting in a theater house. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie. A few little touches here and there give it a sparkle of cinema magic, and there’s enough great moments to override the unsatisfying end. It scores a pleasant three stars out of five in my book.
Into the woods, without delay,
But careful not to lose the way.
Into the woods, who knows what may
Be lurking on the journey?
Into the woods to get my wish,
I don’t care how, the time is now.