Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Into the Woods.

The holiday season is drawing to a close, but not without some interesting gifts.  On Christmas Day this year, the folks at Mouse-Ears Incorporated (aka Disney) gave us a movie adaptation of the fairy tale inspired musical Into the Woods.  This can be seen as a rather strange gift from Disney, seeing as they’re famous for their fairy tale adaptations being light, whimsical and sentimental as well as having indisputable happy endings.  Into the Woods doesn’t really do that kind of thing.  At least, it doesn’t do that for long.  Now, I’ve seen a taped production of the stage musical before.  I’ve also read all the stories utilized in the movie.  However, I also know some people will be going in cold.  So, I’m going to try and address this from all relevant angles.

First, some background on Into the Woods.  Into the Woods started as a musical with music by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine (note: “book” is the word used by theater people for the script in a musical).  It debuted at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 1986 and went to Broadway in 1987.  From that point, it went on to win numerous awards, including a number of Tony Awards.  The musical has been produced many, many times.  This latest cinematic adaptation is directed by Rob Marshall with a script by original book-writer James Lapine and with Stephen Sondheim working closely with them in regards to story and music.

The movie follows the story of a childless baker and his wife as they try to collect various items to concoct a potion for a witch that will lift a curse that keeps them from starting a family.  Like many fairy tale heroes, the baker isn’t given an actual name, so I will from here forward refer to him as the Baker with a capital “B”.  Along the way, their story intersects with those of “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella” (notably, the Grimm version).  These characters all meet in the Woods as they try to pursue their various quests and attempt to make their wishes come true.  This all leads to a “Happily Ever After” . . . that lasts for just a few minutes.  You see, as the second half of the movie starts, all the loose ends from the various stories come together to create a new threat that presents all the various characters with morally ambiguous choices.  Suddenly, nothing seems so simple and every move they made seems to have unintended consequences.

The story, as it’s handled on screen is well done.  There are a lot of subplots.  Subplots can be difficult to juggle.  However, as this movie deals with the theme of unintended consequences, it makes sense that the characters would weave through each others’ lives having an impact in ways they don’t even know about.

The music is Sondheim.  I’m not really a music critic.  However, I’m sure anyone who knows about music will probably know if they will like it from that statement.

Composer Stephen Sondheim
The cast is good.  I’m no music critic, but it seems like all of them can sing.  This is a good sign.  Meryl Streep is fantastic as the witch.  James Corden plays the Baker as a rather lovable if somewhat befuddled everyman with father issues.  He plays very well off Emily Blunt, who plays his wife and plays the part well.  Anna Kendrick plays a suitably indecisive Cinderella, as the part demands.  The most concern among theatergoers was the casting of Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood respectively.  These parts are usually given to adults on the stage whereas the Huttlestone was only 15 and Crawford was 12 at the time of the filming.  Personally, I think they both did very well with material that might have been a little beyond their level.  Then there’s Johnny Depp as the Wolf.  Well, he was interesting for the few minutes he was actually on screen.  Personally, the ones I thought stole the show were Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince.  However, I’m going to get back to them when I talk about the tone of the production next. 

Now, about the tone.  For many people, the original musical Into the Woods was what brought “dark fairy tales” into the pop culture light.  However, the story is also not just dark.  The story is striped with dark and light.  It deals with heavy themes but also adds touches of wit and parody.  Many jokes are made about Jack being dimwitted or Little Red eating all the time.  Even dark elements from the original fairy tales are played for laughs.  I dare anyone to find a funnier take on the infamous “foot mutilation scene” from Grimm’s “Cinderella”.  Then there are the princes who I mentioned earlier.  Sondheim and Lapine practically invented the modern method of making fun of the “Prince Charming” type.  The princes are over-the-top dashing, daring, romantic figures.  However, they also seem to practically ooze arrogance and prove to be less than capable of following up romance with loyal love.  You can see bits and pieces of this take in everything from Fables and the Sisters Grimm books to Disney’s Enchanted and even to some extent in the Ever After High webtoons, depending on the targeted age of the audience.  In the movie, this particularly comes out as the two croon the song “Agony” atop a waterfall while seemingly trying too hard to top each other at being the sexiest man there.  Yet, while the movie can make you laugh with “Agony”, it can also do its best to draw out some tears with “No One isAlone”.  Then, the whole thing manages to end on a bittersweet note, as befits a movie with a variable tone. 

For those who are theater buffs, I will warn you that changes have been made.  Certain songs have been restaged to make them work better on film.  Rapunzel’s fate has also been changed.  Sadly, this means that the reprise for “Agony”, one of the funniest parts of the stage production is not in the movie (will I post a link to the reprise?  Of course I will!)  Also, the part of the Mysterious Man has kind of been cut while not being cut.  You’ll understand when you see it.  I have heard some say that it doesn’t quite have the same charm as the stage version.  However, with the use of the narrator as a physical character and the older actors playing Jack and Red, the stage musical could feel kind of like a children’s fairy tale play that took an odd left turn.  Like a Christmas pantomime gone horribly awry.  The movie, instead, feels like a movie.  As a fairy tale geek, I’m just excited to see another new fairy tale inspired film out there.  Also, it gives some exposure to the Grimm version of “Cinderella”, which could use some exposure beyond the gruesome bits.  I will warn you that the stage version is kind of the forerunner of all the re-spun fairy tale productions out there.  So, if you watch this and feel you’ve seen all this already, then you probably have.

I recommend seeing Into the Woods.  It’s a good, well-made movie adaptation of the stage musical.  It weaves the stories together well and deals with some really strong themes (I haven’t really touched on those much here, but I can’t give everything away).  If you have thoughts on the musical, the movie or just this review, feel free to post in the comments below.  However, since I have all of you still here . . .

In Other Disney News . . .
Disney released the first teaser trailer recently for its Disney Channel movie Descendants, which follows a group of the teenage offspring of Disney movie villains as they go to school with the children of Disney heroes.  You may recall that InkGypsy posted about this way back when on her blog.  Anyway, what can we take from this other than the fact that Disney wants some of that sweet, sweet Ever After High money?  Not much, seeing as it’s just a teaser.  I will just say that from what I’ve read that there will be little doubt that this will be a cheesy production at least from a grown-up viewpoint.  But hey, maybe it’ll be a fun kind of cheesy.



  1. How do you feel about how people who didn't like this movie?

  2. How do you feel about how people who didn't like this movie?