Into the Woods -- where magic is real, as are monsters and witches and giants, but wishes are the most dangerous of all. Oh, fairytales.
With Frozen, I discovered that I am not a fan of the new trend Disney has started (and convinced the rest of the world to join in on) of taking fairytales and twisting them so hard that the entire point of the tale falls out -- and with Into the Woods, that discovery is given reinforcement.
The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) cannot have children, and one day a witch, (Meryl Streep) tells them that it's because of her curse. She offers to reverse the curse for them though, telling them to find four things for her; a cape red as blood, a cow white as milk, a slipper pure as gold, and a lock of hair yellow as corn. They set off into the woods to find these things. At the same time there is a little girl who wears a red cape going to visit her grandmother, a boy taking his white cow to be sold, a poor girl named Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who wants to go to the king's festival, and a girl with long yellow hair who is trapped in a tower with no doors. All these people make a wish -- and then they come true.
|The Baker and his Wife -- the two main reasons I wanted to see this movie.|
The acting and singing quality can be separated into three categories; people who were good at both, people good at acting, and people good at singing. Although I wouldn't go so far as to say anyone was bad at either.
Topping the "good at both" is Meryl Streep, who does everything she does exceptionally, and does no less here with a superb, lovely voice, and the highest quality acting. Next is James Corden, the hero of the story, and the one I was most interested to see, and he didn't disappoint -- he is goofy but sincere and noble, always at the heart of the story, and has a fine, distinctive voice. The two children of the show, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), not well-known actors, may have been cast more for their voices but they both gave fine performances and belong in this category too.
|She probably could have put in half the effort she did, and still have come out on top.|
Those better at the acting: With Emily Blunt it's only the greatness of her acting performance that dulls her singing by comparison, but really she's a pro at both. The biggest difference is with Johnny Depp as The Wolf. He is simultaneously creepy and funny, but once he starts to sing you know that he was cast because he's Johnny Depp, and not because he could do his song real justice. The howl at the end was good though! Then there's Chris Pine's Prince Charming. He actually impresses as a Prince who you might imagine might not have much character to work with, but what he lacked vocally was noticeable because of the duet with Prince #2 which was downright hilarious and brilliant, but the difference of skill between the two was noticeable.
|This scene was just the best.|
Good voices, not-so-very-convincing acting -- Prince #2, Repunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen) was definitely cast for his vocal talent and good looks way before his acting talent. He is the best vocally out of the whole male cast, and fortunately, doesn't have much to do on the serious acting front, and when he does, it is opposite Repunzel, (Mackenzie Mauzy) who is a good match for him, falling into this category as well. Anna Kendrick only barely wavers towards the singing side -- she makes a fine, but slightly modern feeling Cinderella, with a sweet and gentle personality, and, well, a pitch-perfect kind of voice.
|"On the Steps of the Palace" may be my favorite song of the show, and I loved the whole way the scene was done.|
The most basic quality of fairytales is the happily ever after, and while I wouldn't say Into the Woods has a bad ending at all, it's more better-than-before-and-bittersweet-for-a-while-after than straight up happily-forever, and some of the characters were worthy of the happy end they were denied. Denied, it seems, simply so we could be taught a lesson or two. (Or slapped in the face for enjoying classic Disney fairytales.) There were a good-sized handful of little morals to this story, (though they were mostly vague or hard to decipher) and interestingly, one was "morality is what you decide it is," which effectively allows us to ignore all the other lessons.
Another quality of the fairytale genre is that the good characters see good in their lives, and the bad, bad, and the line between the two is easily distinguishable. Perhaps it was because of that one "lesson" but the moral and immoral character are all jumbled together and basically all get the same treatment.
|About to enter the dangerous Wood of Spoilers!|
(Major Spoilers! Next four paragraphs.)
In the case of Cinderella and her Prince, she shouldn't have married him after knowing him three days, (but we already know that, now, don't we Anna?) so you can question her judgment if you like, but what did she ever do to deserve a scoundrel for a husband? She deserved a real Prince Charming. (If you want to destroy the idea of the good Prince, the honorable girl who marries him has to go too -- make one of the ugly stepsisters get him.) Anyway, in the end her reason for leaving him was that she wanted something in between her life at home and her life with him, but that was only to justify the in between she gets -- and it would have been much simpler for her to leave him for his infidelity alone.
And then the case of the Baker, and by association, his Wife -- and yes, she didn't resist very much as the Prince seduced her, but if he didn't meet with an untimely, anticlimactic death-by-giant, then why did she? Her death punished her husband, who, out of all the characters was the most deserving. He deserved his wish and it was the most expensive, and he deserved a happy ending but there was none. Hopeful, yes, and I'm glad for that, but not happy.
Ultimately, the root of my disappointment here it that there was no good example of a truly loving, healthy, romantic relationship here -- the Baker and Wife had the potential, but it was cut off in its tracks before they could pass their test -- what "lesson" are we supposed to learn from this?
Also, if Rapunzel was the Baker's sister, then why did they never get to meet? That plot line was dropped the moment it was brought up. Just a random question.
|Now I've said my peace, on to the more technical things.|
|Here's a cool tidbit: the ugly stepsister on the left is Lucy Punch, who played the exact same part in Ella Enchanted.|
Another neat thing was the return to original Grimm Brothers fairytale form -- occasional gruesomeness and darkness and all. That all only lasted through the first two acts though, and after that, they just had to make it their own and give it a nice twist -- wrench, more like -- and the third act as a result is jarringly different from the rest, and disturbing in a different way. One good thing that lasted through to the end though, was the neat, intricate way the multiple stories were woven together, as if the connections had always belonged that way. This was manifested in the song "Your Fault" which was my favorite part of act 3, as everyone gets their turn of being blamed for the group's situation, and we are reminded of the tiniest little things that connected them.
"Careful the things you say / Children will listen / Careful the things you do / Children will see / And learn" says the song, and it is one of few truths in this story, but unfortunately it failed to take its own advice. Most of its message was just a jumbled, confused mess, but that should be expected from a strictly secular story attempting a morality lesson. The end does see a glimmer of hope, and a generous sprinkling of love and nobility, and on the technical side this was a successful and grand production -- unique, funny and charming, but perhaps not as sincere as it would like us to believe.