December 25, 2014

Into the Woods

It's OK, dear ... I'm still getting an
Oscar nomination out of this.

Into the Woods
Grade: D
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Chris Pine, Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy,  Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hr. 4 min.

It’s not homage to the foreboding Grimms’ Fairy Tales creeping into Into the Woods that makes this musical mash-up an excruciating experience. While Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella are regarded as classic children’s literature, it’s forgotten that the subject matter of these and other Brothers Grimm stories are quite dark and violent—in the original Snow White, the Queen, Snow White’s actual mother, wants her daughter killed so she can eat her liver and lungs.

Instead, it’s a schlocky plot that’s further jumbled by unsavory plot turns to both preserve and limit the onscreen body count. It’s the unremarkable Stephen Sondheim soundtrack that provides just one memorable song, “Agony,” a duet between preening princes. But mostly it’s just a rapey, murdery mess that’s neither pleasant nor poignant.

Director Rob Marshall (having long since blown his Chicago credit) ties together the stories of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk with Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. The narrative lynchpin is a Baker (James Corden, heir to “The Late Late Show” after Craig Ferguson departs) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are cursed with infertility by the village Witch (Meryl Streep) unless they can deliver a quartet of objects to the Witch in three days’ time to break her spell. The four items are the slipper of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), the cowl of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the flaxen locks of Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and a white cow belonging to Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, last seen playing the French boy who croons with a cockney accent in Les Misérables).

The fable meanders through its mundane paces, including a detour down the gullet of the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp). Its off-beat interpretations of the classic fairy tales are convivial enough. But once Jack, having pilfered one too many items from the Giant, chops down the beanstalk and kills the colossus, it causes the Giant’s wife climbing down to exact vengeance on Jack and the kingdom.

It’s here where Into the Woods transforms from tedious to terrible. One character dies at the hands of another character for no discernable reason. Then there’s an out-of-left-field act of infidelity that triggers the equally sudden, misogynistic demise of only the female wrongdoer. Adding to the confusion and literary cowardice, all these deaths occur off-screen, while one character who dies in the stage musical is spared, since I guess two deaths are plenty.

However, the film’s true crime is its hamfisted attempt to blend the fantastic with real-life lessons about pain and responsibilities. The clash of tones ill-fitting narratives is jarring, and the already off-putting plot is made more confusing by some selective sanitizing. If you venture Into the Woods, you’re liable to become a supporter of deforestation.