Into The Woods

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Into The Woods
"In the woods, we are firmly placed in the shoes of the children and slowly start to understand the adults through their songs."

Rob Marshall's high-spirited Into The Woods jumps right into wishing with a song that makes clear what characters think they want. The puzzled Baker (James Corden) and his cautious Wife (Emily Blunt) want to have a baby. An obedient to a point Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to the festival held by the Prince (Chris Pine). A determined Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wants his cow to give milk so that he doesn't have to sell her. "No one has a cow for a friend," says his exasperated mother (Tracey Ullman) and many children in the audience, big or small, on the spot disagree with her and whisper to themselves in the spirit of Jay Gatsby, 'of course you can.'

In the woods, we are firmly placed in the shoes of the children and slowly start to understand the adults through their songs. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is a somewhat gluttonous child. The fact that she is presented from the start more as annoying than sweet, produces a brilliant effect when we and she meet the wolf in the shape of a marvelously refined Johnny Depp, with mighty big ears.

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The tone of their encounter captures the lasting and very non-politically correct allure of fairy tales in a nutshell. The Wolf's song defines his intentions quite clearly and yet his character remains mysterious, alluring, ridiculous, frightening and very threatening to your health. "Hello little girl," he coos, and describes "what you feel, when you're talking to your meal." Little Red calls it "excited and scared."

Most of the tales, such as hers, Rapunzel and Cinderella, are closer related to one of the versions the Brothers Grimm collected and published between 1812 and 1857 than any earlier ones by Charles Perrault or later incarnations through Disney. Thus, for Cinderella, the slipper is golden, birds help with picking out lentils and the stepsisters' eyes [with Lucy Punch as Lucinda and Tammy Blanchard as Florinda], the fairy godmother is nonexistent and replaced by a tree that grows on the mother's grave.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's stage musical Into The Woods, which premiered on Broadway in 1987, distinguishes itself through its precise interweaving of classic tales. There are no random crazy mix 'em ups, and there's a lot of emotional logic in their forest, which was inspired by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 study The Uses Of Enchantment. In order to better connect the tales, a childless couple, the Baker (brother to Rapunzel) and his Wife, are invented, and the "amoral tale" of Jack And The Beanstalk is linked to the stories of parents, wishing and abandonment.

A hovering of the leanings of our hearts in contrast to our out-of-woods minds is triggered by the very funny duet of the Princes. The two brothers, the one in love with Cinderella (Pine) and Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen) sing about their "Agony" atop a waterfall, beautifully showing their chests and the effects of having been "raised to be charming, not sincere."

The backstory around Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) matches the Grimms' tale in which the girl is traded by her parents for lettuce. The Witch (Meryl Streep) becomes an over-protective mother who locks her in the tower to shield her from the world. Streep, sporting the two faces of mother any child can identify, the ugliest and the most beautiful, gets to sing a lot of truth. Hers and in general: "I'm not good; I'm not nice; I'm just right." She can be helpful, too, if the Baker and his Wife provide her with the necessary magical ingredients to remove a curse - "the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold," in time before the third midnight strikes.

Emily Blunt steals the show as the Baker's persnickety wife, with Rapunzel's braid around her neck like a feather boa, giving dead-pan delivery of lines such as "my husband is undoing a spell." He is busy wooing the cow by mooing.

The tales collected by the Brothers Grimm were heavily bowdlerised by them over time. Rapunzel's pregnancy in later editions is carefully tucked into the tale until she gives birth to twins and is of far lesser importance than her magical tears that can heal the blind. The movie of Into The Woods does some of the same censoring of the stage version this time. The two Princes do not encounter Snow White and Sleeping Beauty dormant in the woods to replace their lady loves and death by Giant strikes much more carefully. Narrators stay where they belong - off screen.

"Today, even more than in past times, the child needs the reassurance offered by the image of the isolated man who nevertheless is capable of achieving meaningful and rewarding relations with the world around him" Bettelheim wrote about children's need for fairy tales.

Does this movie make a child of the 21st century, who only knows fragments of the classic stories from video games or cereal boxes, interested in reading tales? Maybe. It is for parents to consider what they are afraid of in regards to rearing their children. Paddington producer David Heyman spoke with me at the US National Board of Review Awards Gala earlier this year about the importance of classic fairy tales for him because they are "preparing children for life".

Fairy tales encourage change. Change is key, but not the kind that makes you cut off a toe to fit in a shoe, or cut off a nose to fit in an image. "Children will listen". Into The Woods progresses from wishing to changing. And it is great fun, too. Not bad to keep that in mind.

Reviewed on: 30 Dec 2014
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The musical story of a childless couple persuaded by a witch to steal special items from classic fairy tales.
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Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: James Lapine

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp

Year: 2014

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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