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Arts & Culture

Don't Go 'Into The Woods'

Johnny Depp is the Big Bad Wolf to Lilla Crawford's Little Red Riding Hood in "Into the Woods."
Walt Disney Studios
Johnny Depp is the Big Bad Wolf to Lilla Crawford's Little Red Riding Hood in "Into the Woods."

Rob Marshall's Adaptation Of Musical Play Is No Fairy Tale

Film Review: "Into the Woods"
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Into the Woods."

ANCHOR INTRO: Rob Marshall nabbed an Oscar for his movie version of the musical Chicago. Now he tackles Into the Woods but KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando says it’s no fairy tale. CLIP Once upon a time, in a far off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods… But don’t go in… unless you want to be bombarded with fairy tale characters and stories dully re-imagined. Into the Woods debuted on stage at the Old Globe in 1986. The idea behind the musical was to interweave characters from the Brothers Grimm – like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Prince Charming – with an original tale about a baker and his wife trying to start a family. But instead of ending happily ever after, we get to find out what really happened. The premise has potential but there’s no cleverness or fun to be found anywhere in Rob Marshall’s film. I would prefer to suffer the peril of the Pit of Despair from The Princess Bride than be assaulted by the preening artifice of this film again. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion Viewing

"Time Bandits" (1982)

"The Company of Wolves" (1984)

"The Princess Bride" (1987)

"Wild Flowers (Kytice)" (2000, Czech)

Rob Marshall nabbed (I'd say stole) an Oscar for his movie version of the musical "Chicago." Now he tackles "Into the Woods" (opening Dec. 25 throughout San Diego) and it’s no fairy tale.

When I think of movie musicals, I think of films like "Singin' in the Rain," "An American in Paris," "A Hard Days Night," and "Jesus Christ Superstar." But what Rob Marshall puts on the screen and calls musicals — "Chicago," "Nine," and now "Into the Woods" — is an insult to the genre. I know that "Chicago" won an Oscar and that many love it but I think that may just be that there are so few musicals these days that fans of the genre will embrace any film that sings and dances. Mercifully, "Into the Woods" only sings and has no real dancing, so that's at least one grating annoyance that's been left out.

"Into the Woods" opens with a narrator telling us, "Once upon a time, in a far off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods…"

But don’t go in — unless you want to be bombarded with fairy tale characters and stories dully re-imagined. "Into the Woods" debuted on stage at the Old Globe in 1986. The idea behind the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical was to interweave multiple characters from the Brothers Grimm – like Cinderella, Rapunzel, Prince Charming, and Little Red Riding Hood – with an original tale about a baker and his wife trying to start a family. But instead of ending happily ever after, we arrive at the happily ever after in the middle and then get to find out what really happened. The premise has potential but there’s no cleverness or fun to be found anywhere in Rob Marshall’s film.

As with his adaptation of "Chicago," "Into the Woods" feels very much like a filmed stage play. Granted Marshall uses a lot of special effects and editing that would not be at his disposal on stage but the end result of what he does feels very flat and presentational as if he's restricted by a stage. He weighs the film down with stars such as Meryl Streep as the Witch, Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf, and Chris Pine as Prince Charming. They may all be able to sing (Streep definitely can and has performed in musical theater) but they all seem a bit awkward in the roles as if they are not quite sure what they should be doing — are they meant to be sending up the fairy tale tropes or playing them straight? But then that's because Marshall doesn't seem to know.

"The Princess Bride" is probably the best example of making fairy tales more contemporary by poking fun at the conventions we know all to well. Rob Reiner knew how to direct that film. He knew that the leads — Cary Elwes as Westley and Robin Wright as Princess Buttercup — had to be 100 percent sincere in their performances and the humor had to come from that sincerity butting up against the ridiculousness of the story. The play "Into the Woods" seemed to have conveyed a bit of this as well but Marshall seems only concerned with the surfaces and therefore misses any potential for smart, funny commentary on fairy tales.

But the failure of the film is not entirely on Marshall's shoulders. The play itself has shortcomings.

I would prefer to suffer the peril of the Pit of Despair from "The Princess Bride" than be assaulted by the preening artifice of this film again. It overtly tweaks the conventions of the fairy tale (like Prince Charming being a bit of a cad and happily ever after not being all it's cracked up to be) and proudly notates things like having a giant but a lady giant, which is very rare. But in the end, it really doesn't tweak the formula all that much. It's still ends on an upbeat reassuring note with the bulk of the characters behaving exactly as we'd expect. But how about throwing in some ethnic diversity or maybe Prince Charming is gay.

The play considers the consequences of getting what you wish for — I wish this film had never been made. I can live with those consequences.

“Into the Woods” is rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.

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