Tales of Yore is a series of articles about fairy tale adaptations. Adaptations can be direct or loose, and these reviews attempt to consider the films in the context of the stories upon which they are based.
A personal journey of mine over the past six or seven years has taken me from the land of Musical Lovers to the dark realm of Apprehensive Scrooges. Sure, Once is one of my favorite movies, but the music is contextualized, and is never used to cover up a lazy script. Most musicals I see now have poor dialogue that doesn’t seem as bad if you sing it, which lets the writers get away with characters stating the themes and their motivations/emotions directly to the viewer, rather than working on that pesky thing called subtlety. I’m generalizing— there are many great musicals—but when I dislike them, it tends to be because the writing is sub-par; the songs, out of place and bombastic; and the plots, as nuanced as the third sentence of this paragraph.
Into the Woods (2014) is not completely guilty of all the faults I listed, but it also won’t be joining the ranks of Les Miserables (the show, not the movie) or Singin’ in the Rain (the movie, not the show). However, it doesn’t exist in the middle-ground of Awful and Great so much as it oscillates rapidly between them. Most of the songs in the first half are expository or shorthand for characterization, which I will admit matches the straightforward writing of fairy tales, but for some reason becomes infinitely more irritating when sung. Perhaps it’s because the dialogue tries to shift between the upfront style of the old tales and realistic conversation? Or because the songs are glorified monologues put over a tune? Actually, I imagine it’s because Into the Woods wants so desperately to call out the lack of realism in fairy tales (namely in terms of consequences for one’s actions), but can’t turn that critical eye on itself. The script wants to evoke the diction of fairy tales, yet dip into realistic writing, all while critiquing the lack of realism in those tales. While the changes in dialect could have been done to make a point (unrealistic language during scenes of selfishness, realistic during scenes of consequence), instead they occur at random.
Actually, “at random” might not describe the decision making process as much as “cheaply and lazily.” The writing takes the shortest route to move the plot forward rather than to reflect or further the themes and tone. For example, when Johnny Depp shows up for ten minutes as the Wolf—presumably because the producers realized they had a million dollars left over and said, “Screw it, now we can put his face on the poster”—his song takes the already unsubtle sexual undercurrent to the Perrault/Grimm story and makes it painfully obvious. Why? Because the writer, James Lapine, and director, Rob Marshall, are terrified the viewer might miss their metaphor of the Woods as a place of sexual and personal amorality. The Wolf does just about everything besides remove his over-stylized clothing; the Baker (James Corden) steals from people so that he can have a child; the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) sings an entire song about how her infidelity is totally because of the Woods.
The central metaphor is hardly fresh, but could be an interesting expansion of the Woods as Danger Zone concept that was key to many fairy tales (see: every story involving Baba Yaga). The Woods serves as a backdrop for most of the characters’ selfish actions, and rather than ending on “Happily Ever After,” the film continues to show the consequences of their lack of empathy. However, the ultimate moral lesson of the film is dubious. The resolution should have been that the characters are punished for their transgressions, but learn empathy and respect, becoming better individuals. SPOILER Instead, the resolution is that the the Baker, Cinderella, Little Red, and Jack abandon their previously independent roles to take on those of the traditional nuclear family: the Father, the Mother, the Spunky Daughter, and the Foolhardy Son. END SPOILER Rather than highlighting these characters’ improvements as individuals, the ending focuses on their return to the societal expectations of men as responsible fathers, women as caring mothers, and boys and girls as well-mannered children . While the formation of a family works well as their escape from the Woods, it’s strangely old-fashioned and in line with the adherence to norms of the very texts that the film and play are trying to critique.
Further, there is a strange focus on sexuality that makes the moral even more antiquated. Everyone in this movie is distractingly horny and superficial: the Witch wants to have her beauty returned to her; the Baker’s Wife makes out with a Prince; both Princes perform songs that would get them arrested if performed within 100 feet of a school. SPOILER Notably, the only character who is actually killed for her sexual transgression is the Baker’s Wife, who kisses the Prince. The Prince, who is married to Cinderella, gets off by calmly breaking up with his princess and returning to a life of luxury. Sorry, Baker’s Wife. No mercy for
people women who wander. END SPOILER But the resolution is, again, a return to sexual normalcy, a forsaking of the Woods in order to become a nuclear family. The story may be self-aware of its status as fairy tale pastiche, but it’s ironically unaware that it’s as conservative as the centuries-old stories that it wishes to subvert.
I might be giving the creative team too much credit, though, in assuming that they put this much thought into the themes. After all, most of the movie is bare bones. The cinematography goes for wide, beautiful shots of the scenery, but the set design is the same pseudo-medieval aesthetic that every fairy tale pastiche goes for. The camera placement/movement are excessive in a way that doesn’t reflect the mood of the scenes, but rather an inability to take a second and think. Even the score sounds like it was written by a composer who long ago phoned it in. I picture a conductor leading the orchestra with a series of shrugs.
Yet, in hindsight, I did enjoy Into the Woods. The number one reason for that is Meryl Streep, whose MO as the Witch is popping out of a tree and cackling. The singing works when Meryl is the lead, because she doesn’t treat it as a song, but rather an expression of her character. I know that praising Streep as an actress at this point is like saying, “Hey, guys, ever notice how that Hitchcock guy is pretty good with a camera?” But her turn her is magical and elevates Into the Woods to the point where it’s easy to have fun and ignore how smart the movie thinks it is. Perhaps the best moment in the entire film is when the Baker and the Baker’s Wife are arguing about a lost cow; after a minute, the Witch suddenly appears and yells, “Cow’s gone! Get it back!” Now that’s how you move the plot along. Chris Pine also understands the virtues of having an absolute blast and hamming it up, and the always-phenomenal Anna Kendrick does her best as a Cinderella that has interesting potential, but not enough screen-time.
The biggest question I have after watching Into the Woods is, “Why bother?” Maybe the creative team wanted to make a star-studded, big budget musical, for which I cannot fault them. However, Into the Woods is hardly a pointless play, with its prodding of fairy tales and decidedly dark turn that constitutes the second act. But the creative team hobbles the darker tones and ideas while still wanting to seem intelligent for them. It’s like covering a Sex Pistols song, but hiring John Mayer to sing over an acoustic guitar and replacing the word “anarchy” with “patriotism.” Why bother?