Movie Review: “Into the Woods”

Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford
Rob Marshall

It is strange to watch a film like “Into the Woods” in a post-“Shrek” world. When “Into the Woods” first debuted in 1987, and turned fairy tales on their heads, it was a truly unique concept. Why should we accept that all princes and princesses have a happy ending? Why should poor children be allowed to steal without consequence? Why shouldn’t terrible parents pay for the sins they committed in the name of “protecting their children”? Those are all fair questions, and many of them have since been addressed in films like “Shrek,” “Tangled,” and “Jack the Giant Slayer,” to name a few of the characters involved here. All of these films owe a debt of gratitude to “Into the Woods,” yes, but when you take 27 years to go from the stage to the screen, all debts have been paid far in advance. We are now at the point where pop culture has passed “Into the Woods” by, stripped it for parts, and left it for dead.

The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) want a baby, but the witch who lives next door (Meryl Streep) reveals to them that she has cursed the Baker’s bloodline with impotency for a crime that his father committed. But she will undo the curse – which will then restore the witch’s beauty – if the two collect four items from previously separate fairy tales: a cow (the one Jack sells for magic beans), a red cape (yep, Little Red Riding Hood), hair as gold as corn (Rapunzel’s), and the golden slipper worn by runaway bride Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who leaves the prince (Chris Pine) in a hurry every night of the big festival. As their lives intersect, the characters learn things about themselves. Some of the things they learn are good, while others are lessons like, if you kill a guy, be prepared to kill his vengeful wife as well. Wait, what?

This movie’s opening song is actually a classic movie musical moment, and it would not be surprising in the least to discover that the people responsible for the sound mixing of “Les Miserables” had a hand in the audio here, because the vocals are mixed beautifully. Only one other song comes close (that would be “Your Fault”), and that is a huge part of the movie’s problem: with all due respect to composer Stephen Sondheim, most of the songs have not stood the test of time, and since the audience has already been bombarded with the fractured fairy tale, the songs are the movie’s one chance to stand above the fray. When they don’t, the movie sinks.

The internet is going to explode with jokes about how Chris Pine is the Russell Crowe of “Into the Woods.” The trolls have it half right: Crowe was not as bad in “Les Miserables” as people claimed, but Pine, sadly, is. I frankly felt sorry for him and onscreen brother Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s love interest) as they sang the dreadful song “Agony,” which was stripped of all irony. As they ripped the buttons off of their own shirts while singing about the agony they felt, I laughed out loud. Get over yourselves, please. That was the point, right?

If one could take “Into the Woods” and view it in an earlier time period, it would look far better that it does today. Regardless of the fact that the source material was ahead of the curve in terms of subverting fairy tales, it took far too long to get to the big screen, and it will suffer because of that. It’s hard to watch Meryl Streep sing “Witch’s Lament,” where she tries to convince her daughter to stay with her rather than to dare live her own life, without thinking of the far catchier, and far darker, “Mother Knows Best” from “Tangled,” and that’s the catch: even though the “Tangled” song likely would never have existed without “Into the Woods,” that doesn’t really matter anymore. “Into the Woods” had a window of opportunity, but unfortunately, it closed about 15 years ago.