‘Into the Woods’ Review: Not Your Typical Disney Fairy Tale, For Better Or Worse

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In the fall of 2013, APCO Worldside surveyed 70,000 people about the world’s biggest brands. They measured their responses in eight different ways—“understanding, approachability, relevance, admiration, curiosity, identification, empowerment, and pride.” The number one most loved company out of 600 choices: Disney.

But if Disney is the most loved company on the planet, it might also be the most criticized. Its detractors claim the company’s products reinforce negative stereotypes about class, beauty, and gender; that Disney leans on storytelling tropes until they curdle into cliches (the talking animal sidekick, the orphaned hero, etc). For decades, the naysayers may have had a point. Recently, though, Disney’s begun to pivot away from its traditional values and stories. It’s rethought and complicated its princesses (‘The Princess and the Frog,’ ‘Brave’), heroes (‘Oz the Great and Powerful,’ ‘The Lone Ranger’), and villains (‘Frozen,’ ’Maleficent’). Disney, once the world’s foremost purveyor of classical fairy tales, is now the industry leader in revisionist ones. And their latest effort, an adaptation of the Broadway musical ‘Into the Woods,’ is their most subversive work to date.

Note, though, I said it’s “subversive,” not necessarily “good.” The fact that Disney—America’s most-trusted provider of comforting children’s entertainment—produced such a dark, bleak deconstruction of comforting children’s entertainment is interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that the film itself is a dreary string of celebrity cameos, creative compromises, and forgettable musical numbers. (Sorry Stephen Sondheim fans; this is not one of his best.)

The hook here, taken from the play by Sondheim and James Lapine, is a world in which many classic fairy tales intermingle—a sort of Marvel Cinematic Universe of Disney stories. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wishes to go to the ball and meet the Prince (Chris Pine); The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) dream of having a child; Jack of “and the Beanstalk” fame (Daniel Huttlestone) tries to convince his mother (Tracey Ullman) not to sell his beloved cow; and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) heads to her grandmother’s house with a basket full of sweets. All these characters cross paths in the woods thanks to the meddling of the Witch (Meryl Streep), who demands the Baker and his wife retrieve certain objects from the others (Red’s hood, Jack’s cow, etc.) in order to lift a curse. And, of course, they all sing along the way, some better (Kendrick) than others (Johnny Depp, who plays The Wolf and whose defeat at the hands of Red Riding Hood qualifies—at least musically—as a mercy killing).

It’s difficult to discuss what happens next, and how it fits into this new wave of Disney revisionism, without significant spoilers, but let it be said that things work out fairly well for the heroes—until they don’t. Much of the movie, like the Broadway musical before it, considers what happens to fairy-tale characters after happily ever after. Couples are torn apart, loved ones die, and wishes that came true curdle into nightmares. Disney’s version, directed by Rob Marshall from a screenplay by Lapine, sticks closely to the broad strokes of the show, but it also strips away some of the more depressing specifics in order to make the show more palatable to a young mainstream audience. A few people survive who previously didn’t, and some of the deaths that stayed in the film are glossed over so quickly that they can be hard to follow. (An informal survey of five different colleagues yielded five different explanations of the final fate of one major star.) What’s left is too dark for most children and too vague for adults.

Amidst the chaos and confusion, the highlight is Emily Blunt, who best captures the spirit of simultaneously embodying and critiquing a fairy-tale character, and who has all of the film’s funniest moments whenever she meets (and is overwhelmingly attracted to) Pine’s Prince. Pine is funny too, though it’s not entirely clear how much of the humor is intentional; even though he’s already played Captain Kirk twice, this broad, hammy performance as the cocky, philandering Prince is the most William Shatner-esque thing he’s ever done. Streep, who previously showcased her musical chops onscreen in the movie adaptation of ‘Mamma Mia!’, works hard and does deliver one lovely solo (“Stay With Me”), but her Witch is underdeveloped, and her role in the ending is disappointingly brief and unclear. And don’t expect to see much of Johnny Depp either; he appears in just one musical number and a short additional scene. Given his performance in that sequence, that’s probably for the best.

Even with the company’s recent move toward revisionism, ‘Into the Woods’ still feels torn between Disney past and present, and between the story’s gloomy subject matter and its creators’ understandable desire to fulfill audiences’ expectations that a Disney movie be “a Disney movie.” Marshall and his team never quite resolved that tension, which is very present in the film’s second half. ‘Into the Woods’ was always going to be an odd fit for Disney. The fact that they made it anyway is both to to their credit and the reason the movie doesn’t really hold together as anything other than an interesting glimpse of a studio in transition.

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