DIR: Penny Marshall • WRI: James Lapine • PRO: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Callum McDougall, Marc Platt • DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Wyatt Smith • DES: Dennis Gassner • MUS: Stephen Sondheim • CAST: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt
To be perfectly honest (and in the name of laying out all personal biases before we start), this movie had two strikes against it before the lights even went down. One, it was a musical and two, it featured James Corden in a leading role (the third strike came when it started and it turned out he was also the narrator). So it came as quite a shock when it turned out that this is probably the most pleasantly surprising movie to emerge since The LEGO Movie and for a lot of the same reasons. Being won over by a musical isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility but a film making James Corden not only tolerable but bordering on likeable? That’s nothing short of divine intervention…
In keeping with Disney’s recent output, Into the Woods is another revisionist fairy tale. This time the twist is that several different fairy tales are happening simultaneously with an overarching story that features a baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) trying to collect four items for a witch (Streep) so that she’ll remove a curse that’s making it impossible for them to conceive. The items are, naturally, each from the various fairy tales; Red Riding Hood’s (Crawford) cape, Cinderella’s (Kendrick) slipper, the cow Jack (Huttlestone) is taking to market and Rapunzel’s (Mauzy) hair. As each of the various characters end up passing through the titular woods, the baker and his wife spend their time frantically running around trying to find the items while each of the other characters try to go through the motions of their respective stories despite the interruptions. There is singing, there are cameos and sprinkled liberally throughout is healthy dose of sardonic humour and a surprising amount of casual violence.
It’s hard to think of any movie in recent memory that wants so badly for you to be simultaneously laughing *at* and *with* it. The overall look is in keeping with a lot of revisionist fairy tales (a slightly hyper-real but ultimately authentic-looking fantasy setting) while the dialogue is made up largely of jokes poking fun at the ridiculous conventions of the very story it’s trying to tell. And in that particular area, this is Emily Blunt’s movie. Not only does she get most of the best lines and moments but in a film filled with good (and genuinely funny) performances, her particular style of acting preposterously casual in situations that warrant the opposite, or bordering on a barely subdued mania make her an absolute joy to watch. The rest of the cast are also pretty good by and large. Corden is, as mentioned earlier, tolerable, Kendrick is her ever likeable self, the child actors are surprisingly funny and Meryl Streep is… mixed. There are moments where she Meryl Streeps like she’s never Meryl Streep-ed before while for most of it, she’s merely there and then, when she finally seems to be coming into her own, the film unceremoniously drops her just when it needs a performance like hers to keep things going. Depp on the other hand…
In some ways Depp personifies everything that’s right with the movie even though he himself is a bit off. He plays the wolf in the Red Riding Hood portion and couldn’t be characterised as more of a sexual predator if he had the very words tattooed across his forehead. Dressed like what an especially trippy Japanese anime might design a caricature of a seventies pimp to look like, complete with whiskers and tail but otherwise human, he’s just downright creepy in his vocal and physical mannerisms. As I said, he typifies the movie as the rest of the film is relentless in flitting schizophrenically between high camp (Pine and Magnussen’s number where they try to have a Handsome Prince-off being a possible high point) and acknowledging the creepier, darker undertones of the stories these fairy tales are based on. If you’re wondering why this got a 12s rating, it’s for that second one. There is a lot of hilariously brutal violence in this movie, largely off-screen, but still played for laughs. And it’s wonderful.
If there’s a major issue it’s that the songs aren’t particularly memorable. They’re fine. They’re all very well produced and performed but none of them stick in your brain for even a second after they’ve finished. On top of this, the film is too long. It seems to reach a natural endpoint around ninety minutes in but then decides to turn into Disney’s Attack on Titan: The Musical for the last half an hour. Now, while the additional running time eventually justifies itself narratively in that, rather than wrapping up absurdly neatly, the whole thing ends in a bit more muddled but much more satisfying way; from a pure momentum point of view, the film really struggles to keep going after the “traditional” ending is reached and passed by. There’s a great one-hundred-minute movie in here somewhere but the two-hour film we’ve been given is ultimately just shy of being something approaching a minor classic. It is, however, nice to see a Disney film that eschews the usual good and evil dynamic and instead advocates a much more morally relativistic tone and ending.
In the end then, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Much like a film such as Airplane!, this is one of those movies where despite it being as precision-tuned as an atomic clock, it still manages to feel so effortless in its own anarchy that it almost feels like improv. If you liked The LEGO Movie and its specific sense of humour, you’ll enjoy this. Or to put it another way, Into the Woods is to Disney movies what 21 Jump Street was to buddy-cop, action movies.
PG (See IFCO for details)
Into the Woods is released 9th January 2015.