It’s funny- your opinion of a movie rarely stays the same. Some movies you see and you’re smitten with them. You enjoyed them to the fullest the day or night that you saw them. But as time creates separation between you and the movie, your infatuation with it slowly wanes, sometimes even slipping into disdain or apathy. Other movies you see and you’re indifferent to them. You didn’t think much of it that night, but reading rave reviews later or hearing from a friend that found a lot to love changes your opinion, sometimes even making that movie your favorite of the year or close to it. The only sure thing in this world is a fickle heart, I guess.
When I first saw Into the Woods, I thought it was pretty good. I enjoyed it. As a sort of mixtape of the main fairy tales (including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc., etc., etc.), the story of Into the Woods is diverting enough. At its center are a baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt), and the witch who lives next door (Meryl Streep). The witch had cast a curse on the baker’s house years before, for complicated reasons that are best left to the movie to explain, and now the baker’s wife is barren. She offers the baker and his wife a chance to reverse the curse by gathering items that just happen to come from other fairy tale characters (“a hood as red as blood”, “a cow as white as milk”, etc.) that just happen to inhabit the same kingdom. This task sends the baker and his wife (…wait for it…) into the woods!
I saw the stage musical years ago when I was in high school, and I’ve listened to its soundtrack since even before that. I went into the movie in love with the stage show, but not expecting too much from the movie. The songs are diverting enough, and I really loved a couple of the performances, particularly Anna Kendrick’s as Cinderella and Emily Blunt’s as the baker’s wife. When the credits rolled, my overall impression was that Into the Woods was a fun little movie.
But the funny thing is that while I enjoyed it when I was watching it, if you asked me now, I’d tell you I didn’t like it. Now, that’s obviously not true- I did like it. I don’t like it now.
Even that day, immediately after we saw it, I was telling the other people I was with that the movie gives up on correctly representing the themes of the stage show. The musical, with its Broadway debut in 1987 and a book and lyrics by the prolific Stephen Sondheim, is rich with themes of unfulfilled desires and holding tight to one’s family. It’s a dark show, with overtones of pedophilia in a song about a wolf attempting to seduce a teenage girl and a second-act song turning the cliché of Prince Charming on its head.
This all works onstage as both satire and engaging drama, but director Rob Marshall wants all of these aspects to fit into what’s essentially a family movie (financed, coincidentally, by Disney). So Johnny Depp’s turn as the skeevy wolf comes off as awkward and random. And the whole second act, originally meant to function as a sobering satire of fairy tales in general, is rewritten and truncated to fit with the Disney whimsy of the first act, rendering both acts toothless in the end.
I’m still fond of the performances, but there’s no denying that some of them feel like they belong in different movies. Even Meryl Streep, who appears to be reprising her role from August: Osage County once more with feeling, holds a fond place in my memory. But her scenery-chewing performance is light years away from the same movie as Anna Kendrick’s rather realistic Cinderella which in turn is in a totally different universe than the kid’s movie Daniel Huddlestone’s precocious Jack is in.
In retrospect, Into the Woods is a disappointment, throwing a brilliant musical into the Disney meat grinder and churning out family movie slush. It’s worth seeing for some of the performances; I haven’t even mentioned Chris Pine’s hilarious Prince Charming yet, but his song alone is worth the price of admission. Perhaps you’ll enjoy Into the Woods more if you have no experience with the original show. I certainly had a good time at the time. It was only later that I realized what I really wanted from this movie, and I didn’t get it.