I was raised to be charming, not sincere.
Into the Woods (IMDB) is a movie adaptation of the 1987 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Let me start by saying that the production values are very high and the cast is first-rate. Some people are saying that it it worth going to the movie just to hear Meryl Streep sing.
Personally however I didn’t find it very satisfactory. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the movie adaptation per se. While I never saw the original stage version I think the problems lie with the original material.
There are several possible ways to make a movie adaptation of a fairy tale:
- You can make a conventional children’s movie, which typically involves removing anything that parents might not want their children to see. This is the most common approach and the results are usually mediocre.
- You can take the high fantasy route and tell the story completely straight (no winking at the audience.)
- You can make it a fractured fairy tale and focus on making it as funny as possible.
- You can go all postmodern and explain at great length that the original story was racist or sexist. This is not my favorite approach but if done well enough it can be entertaining.
Any of these approaches can succeed as long as you pick one and do it well. However they are pretty much incompatible. If you try to combine them the results probably won’t be very good. Into the Woods seems to be attempting a mixture of methods 2, 3 and 4.
The result is a combination of things that don’t quite work. It’s a very grim movie, quite unsuitable for small children and totally lacking in charm.
The characters are quite unlikeable. You might feel some sympathy for them, but only while looking down on them.
The music is…well I hope you like patter songs because that’s mostly what you’re going to get.
As for the humor, unfortunately I already gave away the movie’s funniest line. The rest mostly falls flat.
The movie takes the traditional stories of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel” and links them together into a single interrelated story. It’s common these days for a movie to try to weave a bunch of separate stories together, but it rarely works well. I don’t think it’s impossible to make it work, but it is exponentially harder to tell a bunch of different stories at once than it is to pick one story and focus on telling it well.
The Witch (Meryl Streep) is the central character and unsurprisingly ends up as the most sympathetic character. Surprisingly Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) ends up being very unsympathetic. She seems to be a witch herself, and not a very nice one.
Other than that there it’s all fairly predictable. I trust that everyone already knows about the sexual subtext in “Little Red Riding Hood.” (Tex Avery spelled that out in a series of cartoons in the 1940’s, which were more entertaining than this.) And any child can figure out that Jack’s actions were pretty reprehensible.
On the other hand, you do get to hear Meryl Streep sing. It that’s what you want, then go for it.