Film Review: Into the Woods

by Vincent Chan

Rated PG. Starring Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt. Directed by Rob Marshall.

A baker, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood walk into the woods. Rather than being the initial lines for a joke, so begins the premise for the film Into the Woods

Adapted from a Broadway musical, the film explores the consequences of wishes and desires. The narrative itself focuses upon the Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) as they go into the woods to search for items that will allow the Witch (Streep) to remove the curse of childlessness from them.

Along the way we encounter well-loved characters played by an all-star cast such as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk.

This is a musical with a twist. We are treated to stories we have grown up with and come to love, but there are lessons to be learned from each event. To simply wish for something does not mean contentment when it is answered. Thus the movie moves from what seems to be your normal run-of-the-mill childhood story to a more perceptive insight into life and its complexities. 

That Into the Woods finds its roots in a Broadway musical is one of the strengths. It makes great use of its cinematic freedom to bring a stage play into the world of cinema where CGI and great acting can go a long way. A cinema experience should not only tell a great story but should make you feel a great story – and Into the Woods does this. Scenes are bigger, songs are sweeter and overall the movie retains its musical quality but with greater boldness. If anything, my complaint would be that I felt too embarrassed to stand up and clap at the end of some superb songs (look out for a great satirical melody by the Prince Charming). 

I must say however, that the broadway nature of this film was not what I expected. I went into the movie knowing nothing about it and expecting the childhood innocence that often comes with Disney films. The film is Disney produced and has the traditional Disney playfulness that comes with it, yet Into the Woods has darker tones – it doesn’t have a simple ‘happily ever after’. It explores the themes regarding the complexity of life and thus the second half of the movie takes on a very different tone from the first half.  

Furthermore, I feel the film struggles to work out who its intended audience is. Clearly the original musical would have been for adults but with the movie it seems to go for a halfway mark. It wants to have a family-friendly look and feel, yet retain the darker themes that made the musical feel so memorable for the adults. Thus there’s an edginess to it that doesn’t quite fit in with the family-oriented production it seems to be going for. At the same time it doesn’t probe quite as deeply into some big existential themes of good and bad as I would have liked.

Into the Woods takes time to explore what happens when our wishes are fulfilled. But the contentment that we expect doesn’t necessarily come as we would have liked. Whilst the movie offers another solution, the Bible tells us that we can only find true satisfaction in knowing Jesus.

In speaking to a woman, John 4:14 tells us that:

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

This is an astonishing claim – but one that Jesus makes and doesn’t back away from.

Into the Woods is a fun film that’ll make you want to stand up and clap at times, but misses the mark when it tries to be something for everyone. Three stars.

Into the Woods is released Christmas Day in the US, on January 8th in Australia, and on January 9th in the UK.

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