Into the Woods (USA: 2014): Fantasy without advancing armies is hard

There was a time when inserting an army into a film meant hiring and outfitting a large cast. CGI has made raising one no more costly than shooting any other scene, so our fantasy worlds have been filled with siege engines, legions, giant trolly things and whatnot for quite some time. Simple magic is no longer enough, and its existence in film has become tied to armies and epic saga, even in the fairy tales. Sure, we would like to update and recast these stories for modern times, but that hasn’t meant making them more psychologically challenging or complex. Instead that has meant Tolkienizing everything. Jack the Giant Slayer, Maleficent, Oz the Great and Powerful all have their pitched battle scenes. It’s not enough for Jack to get one giant mad at him any longer. We need thousands of giants wearing armor trying to take over the earth. I bring this up because I was very nervous after watching the trailer for Into the Woods, with its crumbling castle, that somehow, someone would think that in moving Sondheim’s musical modernization of Grimm to the screen, it would be a good idea to add a battery of trebuchets because they are cheap.

Because the musical involves magic, the use of CGI to enhance the story was going to be important, but I didn’t want it to overwhelm the picture. Rob Marshall escaped that urge, barely. I think he managed to keep the effects under control. Because the story has been freed from the stage, he could open up a landscape that is much vaster and darker, but he hasn’t changed the woods into an uncharted jungle. I think Marshall succeeds in keeping it to scale. The theme of the musical is about wishes and losing one’s way, not fighting off witches or other creepy things. The woods created for the film remains a place where one can be lost, not one inhabited by a great evil and other lurking dangers.

The other threat came from making Sondheim’s purposely adult musical into something for families to watch on Christmas. The second act of the musical was always going to be a problem. Not only are several major characters killed, both princes cheat on their wives, Rapunzel is unable to cope with raising children (hates them actually) and commits suicide by giant stomp. Many of those events have been changed in the story, but I don’t think they have altered the dour feelings of the second half too much. Into the Woods was never meant to be a comedy retelling of the Grimm brothers, and the second act deals with problems that fairy tales that we were taught as children aren’t meant to solve. The first act is a a romp. In the second act, the characters have to deal with consequences that were brushed over as they pursued their wishes. There isn’t a “moral” available in the second half – an ironic “be careful what you wish for.” Instead there are a lot of thankless tasks to perform, personal histories that need to be worked out, and decisions to be made. There is a resolution but not a simple answer. “No One is Alone” still ties all of the events of the second act together, so the absence of the death of Rapunzel and actual sex between Prince Charming and the Baker’s Wife hasn’t changed anything important.

The music in the film is fine, and the musical performances are good. The women are better than the men in this one. Anna Kendrick (Cindarella), Meryl Streep (the Witch), Emily Blunt (the Baker’s Wife) and Tracy Ullman (Jack’s Mom) actually can sing and act at the same time.

The same cannot be said for the men. The men seemed to be singing with looks on their faces that might have been the right mood for the song, or maybe not. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are o.k. as the two princes. I know their “Agony” song is supposed to be one of the highlights, but like the characters themselves, the song doesn’t require much more than the men looking boastful while singing. “Agony” is the closest thing there is in the musical to a showstopper in the first half, but it just didn’t move me the way that Streep does in “Last Midnight” In fact, if my friend hadn’t reminded me of it, I would have forgotten it altogether.

James Cordon (the Baker) looks concerned a lot when he is singing, and I know that the Baker has a lot of things on his mind. But even in a song where he is supposed to be panicked and angry (Your Fault), he looks more concerned. Streep, Kendrick and Blunt all have their moments and Corden is better when paired with Kendrick and Blunt than on his own. “No One is Alone” with Corden and Kendrick is the musical and emotional high-point of the film.

*** of Five

IMDB: Into the Woods

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4 thoughts on “Into the Woods (USA: 2014): Fantasy without advancing armies is hard

      • Hi, Peale. When I checked online the movie schedule, Into the Woods is showing now along with Jupiter Ascending and Project Almanac. I’m deciding on Into the Woods because it is a musical and my mood needs changing after rewatching The Love of Siam. I remember you made a review of that so I came here. I totally forgot that I had made a comment here. Thanks to your review I am better prepared to watch Into the Woods. You don’t happen to have reviewed The Love of Siam, do you? I know of course that Siam is the old name of Thailand, but I am still unable to figure out why it is entitled that way.

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      • @Alem,

        I hope that Into the Woods improved your mood. Although I fear it may leave you more even concerned about life than LoS.

        I wasn’t writing reviews back when Love of Siam came out. Just leaving comments on review sites. I usually want to wait at least 15 years to pass before writing a reassessment review. That gives an entirely new generation of film-goers time to grow up who may not have seen the film. That said, there is a lot going on in Thailand at the moment in terms of representations of same sex couples in film and a lot of that points to Love of Siam seven years ago. It really is a landmark film.

        After Brokeback Mountain received a great deal of international attention in 2005, a lot of Asian countries produced relatively mainstream gay themed films. Many for the first time. By mainstream, I mean for release in general audience theaters at home and not just for the Art House/Foreign Film Festival markets. Then it all went quiet for awhile. Thailand had Rainbow Boys, Bangkok Love Story and Love of Siam in rapid succession. Then nothing for a few years. Now, as you know, these stories are all over the place. Taiwan had Eternal Summer. Korea had No Regret. Japan had House of Himiko and Hatsu Koi. (Let’s not count all of those yaoi films that started to hit the market at the same time). Even Vietnam released something. I can’t recall the title off the top of my head. We are nearing the time when we will need to asses the impact of these films and how well they held up. My guess is that Love of Siam, Eternal Summer and No Regret are going to be the ones that people will continue to watch of the Mid 00’s films. Maybe instead of waiting 15 years, I’ll make a 10 year essay some time next year.

        As for the title of Love of Siam, I’m not quite certain. They were probably trying to make the claim that this was a love story for everyone and not just a gay love story. The marketing history of the film if I recall was that they released posters with all four of the teenagers implying that this was a typical teen romance and audiences weren’t aware that the gay romance would play such a large role. I wonder if “Love of Siam” is the title of something else that is being referenced. A thai poem of some sort or maybe an old patriotic song. Music and writing lyrics are important parts of the film of the film. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that “Love of Siam” existed as a title of a love song long before the film was made and it would be like naming a Filipino film “Oh Ilaw”.

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