Film Review: Into The Woods (USA, 2014)

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I wonder how James Lapine felt as he penned the screenplay for the Disney film adaptation of his popular book turned musical Into the Woods almost two decades after its release. Debuting in 1986 with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods has been developed into several productions, won a stack of Tony awards and managed to kick The Phantom of the Opera’s butt, when it premiered on Broadway in the same year.

The secret to its success may lie in how wonderfully zany, off the cuff and incredibly unique the storytelling is. Lapine has cleverly interwoven the Grimm’s brothers version of four classic fairy tales Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Giant Beanstalk into the story of a humble Baker and his wife who are unable to bear children, due to a witch’s curse on their home.

For those who have experienced any of the stage productions, the film keeps true to Lapine and Sondheim’s vision and it’s with the magic of film, that an opportunity is taken to bring the environment, characters and music to a whole new vibrant level. There have been claims from Emily Blunt (the Baker’s Wife) and Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince) that singing was a struggle, but these fears feel unfounded onscreen. It’s truly the stellar casting that makes this movie pop, musical experience or not.

The appreciatively stark and at times gory reality of the Grimm stories is balanced out with humour that is so sharp witted, it continually surprises. Lilla Crawford as the charmingly blunt, sarcastic Red Riding Hood produces more than a few giggles in her line delivery, mannerisms and Annie-like song delivery of numbers such as “I Know Better Now” .

Cinderella and Rapunzel’s stories are relayed with the universal theme of trying to figure out the opposite sex to hilarious extent. Instead of the usual sugar coated fluff, their relationships are refreshingly viewed with more realism. Kudos needs to go to Director Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) for the variety of shooting techniques he’s used throughout this film, including a slow motion aside for Anna Kendrick’s (Cinderella) “On the Steps of the Palace” scene and Pine’s and Billy Magnessun’s (Rapunzel’s prince) over the top “Agony” reprise, where they swan about a picturesque waterfall boy band style.

Meryl Streep (the Witch) of course takes centre stage – her aloof nonchalance is impeccable and draws more than a few laughs. Vocally, she mesmerises and with great wonder steals the show with her powerful rendition of “Stay with Me”.

The film is beautifully shot in that atmospheric Disney style where all the backdrops feel like a surreal piece of beautifully drawn animation that’s made its way into the real world. The CGI elements are quite tastefully done, including Jack’s bean stalk and the witch’s spell casting sequences. Additionally, the costuming is magnificent with special mention to the architectural masterpiece of a midnight gown which Streep’s younger, beautiful version transforms into.

The icing on the cake however is the coming together of the Baker, Jack, Cinderella and Red Riding Hood for “No One is Alone”. The familiarity and sincerity of the song combined with the flawless harmonisation of all parties is enough to bring a single tear to the eye.

This version of Into the Woods is a great introduction to those who’ve never had the fortune of stumbling across it before, and has enough breadth to fascinate a wide audience (although the bigger kids in the group may get greater enjoyment out of it). For fans of the Grimm’s fairy tales, they’re not retold word for word but it’s nice to see a company like Disney not shying away from bringing something as gutsy, spirited and clever as this out to the masses.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Into the Woods is out in cinemas nationwide on January 8th.