Any film that casts Frances de la Tour as a giant clearly has a sense of humour. Alas, Into the Woods, the big screen but mostly set-bound adaptation of the musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), doesn’t give Miss de la Tour any of Sondheim’s internal (perhaps interminable – no, I’m being unkind) rhyming lyrics with which to wrestle. You can tell it is a Sondheim number if there is a complex rhyming structure: difficult to hum-ber (and I’ve tried). They can seem to lumber. And encumber/My ear/With lines that could be humbug. The good news is that the singing is always well articulated. You hear every word, though I imagine they must be torture to translate into another language.
Produced by Disney, Into the Woods is a fairy tale mash-up that gives us Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood all living close to the same woods. The film is like a live-action version of Hoodwinked minus the Rashomon structure. The characters all do their fairy tale things with their stories married together by a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are given three days to assemble four goods – a cow as white as snow, hair the colour of hay, a cape as red as blood and a shoe as gold as – well, gold. If they succeed in their mission, the curse of barrenness will be lifted on their family by a witch (Meryl Streep). Cinderella has the shoe, Jack the cow, Red the cape and Rapunzel the hair. So what are they waiting for? (A life lesson, obviously.)
Farcical goings on ensure. First they have the cow. Then they get the hair. Then they lose the cow. Then they get the cape. But what about the shoe? Cinderella needs the shoe. Then they get the cow again. But Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wants to buy him back. Then, well -
Inasmuch as the film has a unifying theme, it is a riposte to the idea that fairy tales offer instructions for living to young children. ‘You don’t know what’s out there,’ says the witch to Rapunzel – and she’s right. It’s a movie set and there’s not much to see. Temptation is a recurrent motif. Red (Lilla Crawford) tarries when she encounters the Wolf (Johnny Depp, still singing like Anthony Newley) and at least part of his appeal isn’t just the candy in his jacket. The baker can’t bring himself to steal Red’s cape – the young girl screams for the most awful long time, which has something to do with it. Two characters succumb to temptation with devastating consequences – I say devastating, but this is a Disney movie. There is a rule that the witch should not touch any of the four items or else. Meanwhile Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) dances with Prince Charming (Chris Pine) three times on three successive nights for reasons that show the dangers of addictive behaviour.
Who is the film aimed at? Definitely not young children! Not because there is anything in it to alarm or offend – when the Wolf swallows Red, Red might just as well be entering Wonderland, falling down a silken well – but because they will be bored. ‘Mum, when is it going to end?’ They might ask. ‘When we have had the scene that says happy-ever-after doesn’t mean happy-ever-after and when a bean mislaid in Act Two goes off in Act Three.’ Which is of course the second point of the film: adults would not know happiness if it hit them in the face.
Sondheim characters are much more likely to think about the past – evidenced by the doubts expressed by the baker, who desperately doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of his father (Simon Russell Beale) – rather than the future. Charm, we learn, does not go hand-in-hand with fidelity; ‘I said I was charming, not sincere,’ quoth the Prince. The songs with their lyrics that build upon one another suggest their singers are trapped in perpetual motion; Sondheim writes ‘we are going’ not ‘we are here’. The defining scene is the search for Jack, with the baker going in one direction, his wife another. The baker has doubts about his capacity for fatherhood, while his wife, well... There is no suspense generated, as in a normal film that makes you want the baker to rescue his wife. The scene is played out with fairy tale inevitability. The point is not them but the kingdom, which is under threat.
Into the Woods doesn’t feature any fully-rounded star turns; no one character dominates. It is a true ensemble piece. I am frankly puzzled that Streep was singled out for an Academy Award nomination; she does not do anything interesting with the witch. The singing is impressive throughout but overall it comes across as an exercise in style. Rob Marshall’s direction is competent. At the end, there are some unforced admissions. Cinderella finds comfort in cleaning; the sentiment is shocking.
Reviewed at Cineworld Fulham Road (Screen Four), London, Monday 19 September 2015, 14:10 screening