As regular readers of the blog are no doubt aware, I have a tremendous weakness for movie musicals. Perhaps that, and my ignorance of the stage show, will have me heaping more praise on Into the Woods then most, but what can I say. I greatly enjoyed this film, and what’s more, though it was pretty darn good. Not only were the performances good, but the film looked great and had a bit of substance too.
Going in, all I knew about Into the Woods was that it was some sort of fairy tale mashup. That it is, to mixed results. I can’t decide if the film does better when it’s sticking to the classic stories or when it departs from them, but either way it’s somewhat strange to have them both in there, but interesting. The first half of the film is mostly stuff we know, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) sells his beloved cow for a handful of beans, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes to the festival despite her stepmother’s (Christine Baranski) machinations and meets Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Little Red Riding Hood is off to the woods to visit her grandmother and comes upon the Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is stuck in her tower chased by her own prince (Billy Magnussen). Tying them all together is the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who have to make a potion with items they need from each of the traditional fairy tale characters if they want the Witch (Meryl Streep) to lift the curse of infertility on their family. Interestingly, these story lines get wrapped up at about the halfway mark, but the film keeps going on as the characters are dissatisfied with the “happy endings” they are left with (also an angry giantess).
While many of even the best movie musicals have rather thin plots that consist of nothing more than people singing and dancing around while the leads fall in love, Into the Woods has a surprising amount of thematic depth. The film consistently subverts expectations, something that I appreciated considerably. At the end of the day, it’s all about growing up and realizing things don’t always turn out like you want them to. That sounds like your standard Disney sugary nonsense, but I thought Into the Woods did a good job of conveying this message without making it too sentimental. There’s quite a bit of existential angst in this film, something I certainly didn’t expect going in.
The plot is long and confusing, but thankfully the film isn’t. It may sound terrible, but I liked that the movie was relatively short. One of my favorite things about this film is that despite the strange story structure, it didn’t exhaust me like Les Mis did. It clocks in at just about two-hours, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the fastest paced film out there, at least it paced quickly enough to stop me from looking at my watch. One of my biggest pet-peeves of movies today is the lack of intermissions in movies that need them, but this one sidestepped this problem by not needing one. Considering that musicals usually last about three hours, I assume some things got cut out, but unless you’re a devout follower of the stage show it probably won’t bother you.
The story structure still did feel a bit strange. I suppose the Rapunzel section of the story seemed thinner than the rest of them, though that’s the least of the film’s problems in my opinion. The biggest issue is that the transition between the first half and the second half is quite awkward. I’m not sure how this could have been prevented, because that sort of the point of the story. You think it’s over, but it’s not. Still, it felt a bit weird sitting in the theater, though if you’re familiar with it then I don’t suppose it’d be an issue.
The most important part of a musical film is the music of course, and the musical numbers for Into the Woods were generally really good. The music itself is a lot more operatic, with characters sort of singing/talking, similar to Les Mis. I’m going to keep (favorably) comparing this film to Les Mis in that at least the characters did stop singing and talk more. The greatest triumph of this film is that all of the actors are decent singers, no Russel Crowe here. I don’t have a problem casting actors who can’t sing, but nowadays actors seem to be reluctant to have other people do their singing, in which case why did they even get hired? To bring up the box office no doubt, but all of this is beside the point because the singing was good across the board. The film doesn’t really have any dancing, so that’s not an issue. The nature of the music makes a bit hard to distinguish between individual numbers, but just after seeing it the one time I’d point out the hilarious “Agony” with the two princes and the dramatic “Last Midnight” featuring the Witch as the standout numbers.
The film is visually strong, even if this is not really achieved through camera work but rather production design. The titular woods are simultaneously beautiful and threatening. The film does have a storybook look to it, with stunning beams of light filtering through the trees and the woods seeping into the town proper. The effects on the giant might be a bit clunky, but the rest of the film looks pretty awesome.
I could go through and comment on each performer, but then this review would need an intermission. I really liked this film, I liked how the characters how had to adapt throughout, the performances were all good, and the film looked amazing. Perhaps the film falls short of the stage show, but I can’t comment on that because I haven’t seen it. The movie musical may be on its last legs, but this is the best one I’ve seen in a while and I loved it for that.
“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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