Into the Woods is not Out of the Woods Yet

It is always a daunting task to turn a Broadway hit musical into a major film. Even if you front load a ton of stars into said movie, you will have to either: 1) make sure they can all really sing, or 2) settle for someone who is really good at lip-syncing or is that lip-singing? The perils of the latter became very clear in the Milli Vanilli scandal of a band who never actually sang their own songs, but had a hit record. Let us say first that you can rarely do better than Stephen Sondheim when it comes to lyrics. He’s one of the best to ever work on Broadway musicals. And for those with short memories of Sondheim’s past triumphs (e.g. West Side Story lyrics, Gypsy lyrics), at the very least this musical and its lyrics will remind one of another excellent musical, Les Mis. without the Russell Crowe misstep.

In the first place, Grimm’s fairy tales, are just that, often grim, with dark endings and this movie version removes some of the darker elements that were present in the stage version. It’s still probably too intense in some scenes for small children. But it’s not just the choice of source material that is somewhat problematic, it is the attempt to mash and mesh a whole bunch of stories together— Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack the Giant Killer, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and one could go on. The movie of course needs to stand on its own merits, its own two giant feet, and in some ways it does, and in some ways it doesn’t. The story lines keep being interwoven but the end result is that in several ways they all get short-changed. And then there is the moral problem not just with the Grimm originals but this adaptation. The movie becomes something of a post-modern parable suggesting that each person should decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. Of course that results in chaos and conflict, aptly depicted in the film.

On another level the film is a cautionary tale warning ‘be careful what you wish for’, and it depicts the sometimes good, sometimes bad desires of princes and paupers, of bakers and barkers, of witches and giants, of young and old. It also pokes fun at overly simplistic and idealistic fairy tales, for instance Prince Charming at one point quips after kissing another man’s wife, “I was only supposed to be charming, not sincere”. It is at this point in the film that one realizes one is watching fractured fairy tales, not the sort of yarns Disney usually spins. But then this is also a cautionary tale about dreaming, and indeed the problems when dreams become realities.

On the whole, I enjoyed the singing and excellent lyrics in the film. Meryl Streep is her usual wonderful self, and everyone else in the cast pales by comparison. But over two hours of Grimm thrown into the Cuisinart and served up blended and cold, is too much, and it leaves you with some benefit, but also some coal in your stocking. Caveat Emptor.

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