Review: Into the Woods (2014 movie)

I’ve never seen the original stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that debuted back in 1986, but this is reportedly a pretty faithful adaptation, with script by Lapine and all changes (mainly for running time) approved by Sondheim. The stage version was a huge, award-winning success in New York and London with multiple revivals. The film was a commercial and critical hit as well.

I hated it.

The premise isn’t a bad one: Several of the Brothers Grimm’s best-loved fairy tales — “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” — tied together by a new story concerning a baker and his wife trying to appease a witch so she’s lift the curse that has made them childless.

The cast is quite good. Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood) have voices that approach Platonic ideals. There are a lot of other talented people and big-name stars here—Emily Blunt as the baker’s wife, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother, Tracy Ullman as Jack’s mother, Meryl Streep as the witch, and Johnny Depp as the wolf (looking like a zoot-suit-wearing wolf from a Tex Avery cartoon). Chris Pine, the new Captain Kirk, plays one of the nameless princes, and during one song (“Agony,” his duet with other prince about the pain of unrequited love) he inserts a William Shatner impression. I don’t recall any bad performances.

Sondheim’s lyrics are full of ingenious wordplay. His music, on the other hand, is generic Broadway of the sort once mocked on The Simpsons. There’s not one song I’d care to hear again.

The plot preserves the darkness of the original fairy tales (though in the film the violence and sex of the play are said to have been toned down out of concern for children in the audience), and it’s clever in how it ties together the various stories. But as with the lyrics, I’d have preferred something more than cleverness. I forced myself to keep watching until the depressing bitter end, and that was not one of my better decisions.

Given how many other people loved the movie, I won’t tell you not to see it. But this isn’t a case of my not liking something because of extraneous matters that depressed my mood or something when I saw it. On reflection I really do think it’s crap, and I’ve discovered I’m not alone in finding it at best boring.

I should mention one thing in particular that bothered me, namely the way the film handles the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. The original folktale is sometimes interpreted as a metaphorical warning for little girls to be wary of child molesters, and Into the Woods makes the sexual innuendo pretty obvious, both in the duet “Hello, Little Girl” and later, after her rescue, in the song “I Know Things Now.” Here’s how the latter begins:

Mother said, “Straight ahead,
Not to delay or be misled.”
I should have heeded her advice…
But he seemed so nice.
And he showed me things
Many beautiful things,
That I hadn’t thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful,
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited—
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, “Come in!”
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared—
Well, excited and scared—
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know.

I gather than on stage Miss Hood has usually been portrayed by a young woman in her late teens or twenties. (Anna Kendrick reportedly expected to be cast as Red rather than Cinderella.) That makes it possible to interpret “I Know Things Now” as the expression of a young woman’s ambiguous feelings about her first seduction. But Lilla Crawford was much younger — only 12 when the film was shot — so we have a pre-teen girl saying, in effect, that being molested was a bit scary but also exciting and educational. I find that pretty creepy. It’s far from the only thing I disliked about the film (I was already severely bored and annoyed by this point), but it’s certainly one of them.

And the trailer looked so promising…


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