Film review: INTO THE WOODS, from ‘Built For Speed’

Into the woods, which is based on a stage musical, mixes the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel into a campy fairy tale meta-movie. While this attempt at a jokey musical comedy initially offers some pantomime amusement it transforms into a turgid, overlong snooze fest.

Set in a mythical medieval kingdom, the story centres on the local baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child. When their next door neighbour (Meryl Streep), who just happens to be a vengeful witch curses them to childlessness unless they bring her a red cloak, a white cow, yellow hair and a golden slipper, the couple are forced journey through the woods in search of this unusual assortment of items.  Their trek, which mainly involves them traipsing around a forest at night, sees them encounter Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who is being pursued by The Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who is being chased by an arrogant prince (Chris Pine), Jack of beanstalk fame and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) among others.

Into the Woods joins Shrek and Hoodwinked as a fairy tale team-up movie but as the stage play on which it’s based actually began in the mid-80’s Into The Woods effectively pre-dates those films.  Unfortunately, Into the Woods is nowhere near as much fun as those animated blockbusters.  Viewers already enamoured of the stage play may be more tolerant of its forced humour but the uninitiated will find Into the Woods a slog.  Few of the characters are memorable funny although the always charming Emily Blunt generates a few laughs with her droll delivery and Chris Pine is more tolerable than usual and even amusing at times as the posturing prince.  Meryl Streep has some fun hamming it up as the Cruella de Ville style femme fatale witch although we have the uncomfortable sense that we’re watching a great actor slumming it. The other characters drift through the film to little effect with Rapunzel and her lover mysteriously vanishing before the end.

Equally problematic is the meandering narrative which may have worked as a series of vignettes on stage but feels slow and unfocused on the big screen.

Part of the stage plays’ appeal was the way it skewered the notion of the happily-ever-after fairy tale by ending many of the story threads tragically.  This aspect of the play hasn’t translated well to film as Into the Woods just feels tonally uneven, shifting awkwardly from panto silliness to Disney schmaltz to violent action.  Also, what in God’s name was director Rob Marshall thinking by having Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf behave like a sex predator.

One of the biggest disappointments in the film is the songs which despite having the imprimatur of song writing legend Stephen Sondheim are mostly devoid of melody and contain bland, tedious talk-singing.  Although the songs disappoint, the film’s orchestral score is impressively moody and evocative.

This film may provide pleasures not apparent to those who haven’t seen the play but for many cinema goers Into the Woods will prove to be dull and confusing.

Nick’s rating: **.

Genre: Musical comedy/ fantasy.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Rob Marshall.

Release date: 8th January 2014

Running time: 124 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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