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Into the Woods

This is one Hollywood musical that sounds hideously out of tune.
By Tom Clift
January 01, 2015
By Tom Clift
January 01, 2015

The woods are a dank and dreary place in Disney's big screen adaptation of this beloved Broadway show. A star-studded fairy tale mash-up, Into the Woods contains no shortage of great actors, none of whom can do anything to distract from the film’s horribly awkward pacing or the apparent visual indifference of its director. Combine that with the script's (mostly) toothless treatment of Steven Sondheim’s subversive source material, and this is one Hollywood musical that sounds hideously out of tune.

The story takes place in a generic far away kingdom, where a lowly baker (James Corden) and his cheery wife (Emily Blunt) enter into a bargain with the neighbourhood witch (Meryl Streep): locate four magical objects, and in return she'll lift the curse that prevents them from conceiving a child. The search takes them deep into the nearby woods, where they encounter a multitude of bedtime characters, including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (newcomer Lilla Crawford) and Jack the Giant Slayer (Daniel Huttlestone).

Sondheim doesn't just include these names because they're familiar. Although fairy tales are aimed at children, they're inevitably packed with plenty of adult subtext. Into the Woods, in its best moments, subverts our expectations, delving more explicitly into the ideas lurking under the surface of these kid-friendly fables, or in other cases turning them totally on their head. The sexually suggestive interplay between the pre-teen Little Red Riding Hood and the lecherous Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp) is seriously un-Disney, while Chris Pine's delightfully hammy performance as the somewhat less than charming Prince Charming speaks to the folly of unrealistic romantic expectations. His rendition of 'Agony' is the highlight of the film by far.

Sadly, these tongue-in-cheek moments rarely go as far as you would like. The instances of morbid and self-aware humour are great, but they're ultimately secondary to a dull, drawn-out story. Furthermore, although the songs are generally well written and performed, they increasingly tend to bog down the narrative as opposed to driving it forward. At the same time, despite the endeavour feeling too long, a number of the major character arcs feel seriously short-changed. The witch, in particular, simply up and disappears once the movie has nothing more for her to do.

Then there's the matter of director Rob Marshall, who between Nine and the most recent, nigh-unwatchable Pirates of the Caribbean movie seems determined to prove that his Oscar for Chicago was a complete and utter fluke. His unimaginatively framed musical sequences make Tom Hooper's super-extreme Les Miserables close-ups look positively artful, while the overcast grey-green colour palette of cinematographer Dion Beebe saps the film of whatever energy was left.

For a film about magic, Into the Woods contains next to none. Here's hoping this isn't an indicator of what 2015 movies have in store.

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