“Into the Woods” Movie Review

     Director Rob Marshall’s “Into the Woods” concocts a story centered around a baker and his wife who long to have a child, only to find out their inability to do so is the result of a curse put on their family by an evil witch.  In order to remove the curse, the witch instructs them to find several items that happen to be key parts of several notable fairy tails.  The proceedings then become a sort of mash up of “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel” as each of those stories is directly interlinked with the central story all taking place in a fictional kingdom and the woods beyond it.  After a so so outing with 2011’s fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, “On Stranger Tides”, Marshall returns to the realm of which he was most successful, that being the musical genre where his 2002 film “Chicago” won Best Picture.  Based on and adapted from the Broadway play by James Lapine, “Into the Woods” is a surprisingly grim tale masked by the Disney marketing machine as a family film.  People die and the ones who are left in the end seem to have uncertain futures in much the same way the characters in “Les Miserables” did, which may leave some audiences wondering aloud if this is really the film they expected.

     One of things that surprised me the most about “Into the Woods”  is how constrained the entire production turned out to be.  For the entire holiday movie season, film goers were forced to sit through a long making of trailer that featured Rob Marshall himself speaking about the project and how much difference there was between the stage version and the epic scope of his film.  In reality, “Into the Woods” felt very much like the sound stage it was shot on and utilizes very little of the technology available to filmmakers today in the way of computer generated effects.  Nearly all of the effects are indeed physical and since the majority of the scenes take place in the woods, all of the sets look virtually the same.  These settings are bland and cold, lacking any kind of creative touch or whimsical nature like the ones seen in recent movies of this genre like “Alice in Wonderland” or “Maleficent”.  These settings set the overall tone from the beginning, which after viewing the film, appears to be purposefully a downer.

     The film’s first two acts seem palatable.  An opening scene sets the stage as a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have their store invaded by a witch (Meryl Streep), who promptly tells them of the curse on their family and how to remove it.  This scene sets off the series of intertwined fairy tales within the story that has all of the central characters going on each of their respective journeys through the woods just outside the kingdom.  The story of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is told as she attends the Prince’s (Chris Pine) festival each night for three nights, promptly leaving before midnight each time in order to return to her normal self.  Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is venturing through the woods to bring her sick granny food, but is being hunted by the Wolf (Johnny Depp) in a series of scenes that have brought the film a bit of criticism due to hints of pedophilia.  Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent to the next village to sell the family cow, but comes back with magic beans instead which he uses to grow the beanstalk that leads to the land of giants.  Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) herself is actually locked up in a tower in the woods and is visited nightly by her Prince (Billy Magnussen) each night as she drops her golden locks of hair down below which he uses to climb up to her.  All of these characters ultimately contribute an item to the Baker and his wife, but will it be enough for the curse to be removed by the witch?

     If the film ended at this resolution, they might’ve actually had something.  Curiously, given the promise of an epic film, Marshall never shows Jack going to the land of the giants and retrieving the huge gold pieces and gold eggs he brings back to the woods.  The festival Cinderella attends over the course of three nights is also never shown and thus we never really have an idea as to why the Prince has fallen for her in the first place.  What did she do that has him chasing her with his guards into the woods each night? Since the festival was also attended by her stepmother and her two daughters, how did she avoid detection by them for three consecutive nights?  Quite frankly, the entire film has look of something that was strung together on a tight budget and has none of the visual splendor one would expect from a story of this nature.

     The big mistake really comes in the excruciating third act that runs for the final 45 minutes.  Apparently while stealing a giant’s golden harp, off screen of course, a chase down the beanstalk ensues that results in the giant’s death.  Well guess who’s coming after Jack now?  The giant’s giant wife.  This menacing giant of whom everyone is deathly afraid of is an old biddy bag who speaks in an echoey baritone drawl, in other words she looks like a normally dressed human grandmother, not a giant from a fairy tale.  Strangely enough, we never really see her face and all she seems capable of is knocking trees down in the forrest.  This was a really tough three quarters of an hour to sit through and killed any of the momentum the previous two acts had going for them.  This is where several characters unceremoniously die, some disappear with no explanation at all, and we’re left with a few of them pondering their bleak futures.  Now that’s a holiday movie!  GRADE: D