“INTO THE WOODS” — 3 stars — Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone; PG (thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material); in general release
Disney has declared war on its past. Just over a year ago, “Frozen” set fire to tradition by giving audiences not one, but two princesses, then made sure to upend the role of the handsome prince.
A few months later, “Maleficent” reimagined one of Disney’s most legendary villains as an antihero and put a stake through the heart of a classic fairy-tale trope: true love’s kiss.
Now, as 2014 winds to a close, we have “Into the Woods,” an academic deconstruction of classic myth that masquerades as an ensemble fairy-tale mashup.
Of course, “Into the Woods” isn’t an original Disney production, and it predates “Frozen” and “Maleficent” by decades. It’s based on a long-celebrated Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical and is hardly a Johnny-come-lately.
But the point is the same.
“Into the Woods” explodes into action immediately, laying out its core characters and plot with swift precision. You’ve got a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who can’t have children thanks to a curse from a local witch (Meryl Streep). The witch will lift the curse if the baker journeys into the spooky woods and locates four extremely specific items within three days.
Luckily for the baker, all four items are conveniently making their way into the woods for various reasons. A boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is on his way to sell the family cow (item No. 1); a little girl (Lilla Crawford) in a red cloak (item No. 2) is on her way to visit her grandmother (pursued by a wolf played by Johnny Depp); and an orphaned maid (Anna Kendrick) cuts through the woods in golden pumps (item No. 3) each night as she flees the presence of an extremely charming prince (Chris Pine). Oh, and a maiden (Mackenzie Mauzy) with ridiculously long, golden hair (item No. 4) is being held captive in a tower nearby.
It feels like a linear story, but the quest is just the first stage of “Into the Woods.” We spend the first half of the film following the baker and his wife around on their errand, veering off here and there to pick up bits and pieces of the famous fairy tales playing out all around them. We spend the second half dealing with the aftermath.
What’s odd is how starkly different the film’s first and second halves feel. For the first hour, when characters aren’t singing dramatic Sondheim originals, they’re talk-singing their dialogue to each other in choreographed melody. But as the film moves along, the talk-singing goes away, and the songs come less frequently. Given the twists and turns of the plot, and the dramatic change in tone, you feel like you’re watching two different movies.
Without having seen the source material, it’s difficult to say if this is intentional or the result of the adaptation. But fans of the musical should be happy to see that “Into the Woods” feels right at home on the big screen. The visual style of the film makes use of its scope but retains its intimacy as well.
Other highlights will be instantly familiar to fans and striking to newcomers, such as the campy rendition of “Agony” by Prince Charming and Rapunzel’s prince, who is played by Billy Magnussen.
But parents need to be cautioned here. “Into the Woods” is pitched as a creepy family movie, but the more things move along, the less family friendly they feel. The sexual undertones of the Wolf’s fascination with Little Red Riding Hood feel just a bit uncomfortable, and when the baker’s wife crosses paths with Prince Charming, their encounter feels quite adult.
The intent behind this is to deconstruct and examine the popular myths of our culture, which is very interesting to watch but may not make for the best fodder for the little ones.
More than anything else, “Into the Woods” feels like a clever fairy tale for adults — and yet another example of Disney’s curious effort to subvert its own past.
"Into the Woods" is rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material; running time: 124 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.