Iconic characters, such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, find their fates intertwined with a humble baker and his wife, whose longing to have a child sends them on a quest to reverse a witch's (Streep) curse. With an all-star cast, this spellbinding adventure is everything you could ever wish for! (from Walt Disney Pictures)
Truth be told, before I ever became a real, bonafide music enthusiast, I would occasionally latch on to a movie soundtrack here and there and wear out the cassette for it. Beyond being a kid who just loved Ghostbusters and the toys that accompanied the spin-off cartoon show--and therefore played that film's soundtrack cassette extensively--I probably first really fell in love with the music for Disney's Beauty and the Beast when it released while I was eleven years old. Now as an adult, it still surprises me to think I would play that tape over and over, but something about that film and those songs really planted a seed within me for loving music. And the reason why this surprises me so much is because, for the most part, I have no interest in musicals these days. Upon learning that Into The Woods was a modern musical in film form, I made it no priority to see it while it was in the theater. Still, the cast and premise intrigued me. And when it came time to reviewing its Blu-Ray debut, I decided to take a chance.
What Into The Woods proves to be, for this reviewer, is something of a trip down memory lane. It definitely hearkens back to the style and feel of that 1991 animated classic, Beauty and the Beast, but it brings a popular 80s play to the big screen in true Disney form. Chicago and Nine director Rob Marshall is no stranger to musicals, and he does an excellent job giving Into The Woods the big screen, fantastical treatment. The story translates well to the big screen and feels like something of a hybrid of stage and screen. This is also helped by the singing mixed with dialog (like in Beauty and the Beast), and the set pieces that range from on location forestry to surrealistic sets. The cast is strong, too, with vocal talents that run the gamut from pretty good to outstanding, with some of the least impressive being some of the film's star power. Still, you're bound to be wowed by the likes of Meryl Streep and James Corden, while Chris Pine's incredible pipes will have you hitting Google to see if that was really him singing or not. And while young newcomer Daniel Huttlestone is truly impressive as Jack, Little Red Riding Hood's Lilla Crawford is almost unbearable at times, and the autotune on her voice is just a little too noticeable.
To be honest, I was completely unfamiliar with Into The Woods as a story going into seeing the film. I did, however, hear much controversy about Disney taming the film when they announced it was greenlit, but in researching what changes were made from stage to screen, I got the feeling that most if not all of the changes were for the better. I have to agree with some thoughts I read online, too, that Into The Woods is far more a film for adults than kids. It's interesting because I found the dark latter portion of the story, while feeling somewhat tacked-on and disjointed from much of the story that preceded it, to be a sort of realistic if not entirely cynical commentary on fairytales in general. Many of us grow up believing in fairytales with storybook endings and extraordinary romantic ideals, only to find that life just doesn't work that way. Heck, the Bible is loaded with so many stories that have anything but fairytale sentimentality, but we choose to let ourselves get swept away in the romantic tales of princesses, princes, knights, and fair maidens. Into The Woods takes a handful of familiar stories, smashes them into each other so they intersect, and then brings heartache to each of them. In many ways, that's life. But instead of leaving everyone in a heaping mess of despair, the theme of the film sort of reminds each other--and the viewers--that we're not alone. Life may not be the storybook we dreamed of, and turn out the way we hoped it would, but we don't have to walk through the forests of life by ourselves.
So, thematically, Into The Woods is surprisingly heavy and mature. At one point, it's heavily implied that a prince and a married woman have an affair, and while there are consequences to it, it's surprising to find in a "Disney film" like this when you're not expecting it. The scene isn't explicit, and the movie may even really just downgrade the apparent "one night stand" from the play to mere kissing or making out, but still, you find two characters get swept up in a moment and it's probably one of the more depressingly realistic twists to a fairytale story. There's also a song near the finale that uses the lyric "You decide what's right, you decide what's good," which couldn't be further from Biblical truth. I suppose one can take it with a grain of salt given the fantasy nature of the entire story, but there's something about hearing a main character justify life's unexpected turn of events with reasoning like that that just feels really wrong.
The other content in the film is mostly shrouded with a dark tone, with occasional surprisingly violent moments either briefly touched on or talked about. (But let's be honest, most classic fairytales ARE shockingly dark and violent!) Johnny Depp plays The Wolf who pursues Little Red Riding Hood, and he sings a song about wanting to eat her flesh. We later learn that he swallows Red whole, along with her grandmother, but The Baker then raises a knife above the sleeping wolf and we hear the stabbing sound. Later, Red and her Grandmother are free, while Red ends up wearing a coat made from The Wolf's skin (We also see a dreamlike telling of the Wolf's story from Red's perspective that isn't graphic but goes a bit more into detail). The most cringeworthy violent sequence, however, is when Cinderella's wicked stepmother makes her stepsisters cut off a pinky toe and heel to try to fit into Cinderella's slipper. We don't see anything graphic in these moments, but we hear the slicing sound effects as well as the sisters' screams during this. It's also sort of played for laughs to keep it light, but some may find the idea a bit unsettling. There's also the central theme of a witch who has cast a spell of barrenness on the story's central couple, and the pair set out to undo the spell. At one point, the witch even raises a cow from the dead after it has been accidentally killed. So while the witch and her magic are somewhat tongue-in-cheek and are present within the setting of a fairytale, anyone who's sensitive to such themes will probably want to skip this one.
As a production, Into The Woods is an impressive achievement. It's more for the adults than children, with themes more appropriate for mature viewers, but there's also enough fun and whimsy in the stories and songs for some young adults to enjoy. For the most part, though, it's a pretty dark take on familiar fairytales--not quite Brothers Grimm dark, but not too far from it. The songs are good, the acting and singing are great, and Marshall's direction is strong. Still, some of the themes make it tough to give an enthusiastic recommendation, but there remains plenty here to appreciate depending on the viewer.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 3/22/15)
Streep Sings Sondheim - She'll Be Back (4:48) - Sondheim had written a brand new song just for this film, just for Meryl Streep to sing. Director Rob Marshall introduces this cut scene and explains that everyone liked it but decided to cut it out in favor of the film's pacing.
The Cast As Good As Gold (10:10) - Marshall and the cast talk about the play and bringing it to the big screen. All of the major cast is covered here, and we get to hear from some of them directly about their roles.
There's Something About The Woods (13:23) cover the story's themes and mentions the different sets created and on location shooting.
Deeper Into The Woods
From Stage To Screen (8:33) talks about revisiting the material of the play to adapt it for screen. They also talk about the songs and the narrative style between the two versions of the story.
The Magic of The Woods (7:24) addresses the lyrics of the film's songs and the tone of the film. They talk about the spectacular and complicated sound editing and how they recorded the songs for the film, with them being recorded in a studio first and then again on set while filming.
Designing The Woods (7:07) - This one retreads some of the material from earlier, but talks about the influence of "the woods" on the characters' lives. Marshall also talks about how "the woods" are a metaphor for our hopes and dreams, but also our fears. They also address the heightened reality of the woods and how they progress in appearance over the film's three acts.
The Costumes of The Woods (6:53) - Colleen Atwood, who was nominated for an Oscar for her costume design in this movie, talks about designing the look of the characters in Into The Woods. They also talk here about how every character is designed to look like they've been lifted out of a different time period. It was neat to learn that Johnny Depp wanted his wolf look to be modeled after the Tex Avery cartoon design, complete with 1930s style zoot suit.
Music and Lyrics - This separates the songs from the film to allow you to watch them individually, with a Play-All function, or to watch the movie with lyrics captioned for the songs. There at 17 songs singled out in this section.- John DiBiase, (reviewed: 3/22/15)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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