2014 has been quite a year in cinema. Not in any grand sense, but in my own personal taste. Some of my favorites were The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy (noticing a trend here?), the Lego Movie, Mockingjay, Believe Me, and I’m still working on seeing Interstellar, Whiplash, Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel, and the new Hobbit film.
So the latest film I’ve seen in theaters is Disney’s Into the Woods. I have been looking forward to this one for quite a while now. Into the Woods [ITW] was the first musical performance I ever saw in my life (insert 4th grade field trip nostalgia). I grew up loving the Grimm’s fairy tales, so the idea of combining these stories together peaked my interest at that age. But even though Disney seems like the most logical studio to adapt a fairy tale to the big screen, I had my hesitations. Would they shy away from the original message of these stories?
A brief summary for those who don’t know, ITW tells the story of a baker and his wife who learn that a witch has cursed their home, prohibiting them from having children. She gives them the opportunity to embark on a journey that if successful, will “reverse the curse.” So they set out to find a cow as white as milk (Jack and the Beanstalk), a cape as red as blood (Little Red Riding Hood), a slipper as pure as gold (Cinderella), and hair as yellow as corn (Rapunzel). As these age-old tales weave in and out of each other, these characters must face the various trials that await them in the woods, all the while learning that there is a life beyond “happily ever after.”
The verdict: I was impressed. To start, the actors are very well cast, performing the songs brilliantly live (very little overdubs were used). I especially enjoyed Meryl Streep as the witch and Johnny Depp’s cameo as the Wolf. The characters are very rich with depth and personality, and we are given enough time to invest in them. The film does a great job allowing us to witness events from the character’s point of view as if we were right there with them, thus giving them more emotional weight. This is depicted through limited camera angles and shots.
Disney as usual knocks it out of the park with their visuals. The sets are gorgeous and colorfully diverse. I found it a little odd that they didn’t take advantage of the CGI more with the giants, but nonetheless it was refreshing to see more old school style visuals in a play-to-film adaptation (e.g. the wolf’s costume and make-up).
But what I loved most about this film was how its themes were presented. All of the characters have something they wish for, but when they go into the woods (symbolic of temptation) to fulfill them, their hearts are both changed and revealed in the process. For example, the Baker learns that he can be very brave in the face of danger, but also that he is a thief. Likewise the Baker’s Wife can be very resourceful, but can also be tempted into lust. The witch gets her wish to be physically beautiful fulfilled, but discovers that her heart never changed and is still a witch. As we discover what’s really in their hearts, we learn that these fairy tales we’ve always known (and life itself) are more complicated than they seem.
The film also plays off our preconceived perceptions of happiness. After the story’s “happily ever after,” there comes a roughly 45 minute third act that reveals more to the story beyond the pursuit of happiness. Prince Charming is not as sincere and noble as we thought he’d be once he’s married, and Jack still has to deal with the consequences of murdering a giant. Although the film does have a happy ending ultimately, it’s not the one we thought it would be.
Family is perhaps the predominant theme of the film. All of the main characters are introduced in the context of their families, notably with no good father figures present. All of these families in the third act are torn apart through a “giant” presence in their lives. This leaves the few remaining characters to join together as one dysfunctional family, leading the Baker to become the sole father figure to these orphans.
All in all, Disney’s adaptation of the musical Into the Woods brilliantly captures the spirit of the play while managing to not shy away from its more adult themes regarding life. The characters are interesting, the set pieces are fantastic, and the story is cohesive. ITW accurately portrays the deceitfulness of the heart, the messiness of life, and the importance of laboring in love for family.