By Susan JAMES
Merry Christmas, kids, Santa Claus has left you an expensively wrapped piece of movie coal under the Christmas tree. It features a wicked witch, angry giants and singing children. It looks like a kids’ movie. Trust me, it isn’t. Director Rob Marshall’s grandiose imagining of the Stephen Sondheim musical featuring four of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales should be a holiday treat full of fun but instead it seems to go on forever with little magic in the mix.
Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk have been interwoven into a plot about a cursed baker (James Corden) and his barren wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child. The mercurial witch next door, played with much over-the-top screeching and arm waving by Meryl Streep, is herself under an aging curse that can only be lifted if the baker cooperates in a particular spell. In exchange the witch will lift her own curse from him and he and his wife can have the baby they so badly desire. In the process of trying to assemble ingredients for the curse’s removal, the bakers are forced to go into the woods where they eventually run into Red Riding Hood, Jack, Cinderella, Rapunzel and a daffy pair of princes.
The tales of the Brothers Grimm in their original form were not particularly child friendly. They were stories that had sharp points, unpleasant parents, abused and abandoned children, and true horrors lurking in the shadows. “Into the Woods” returns to the casual violence of the originals but wraps it in a series of overlapping musical meditations where fairy tale characters dutifully and dolefully examine modern morality. Should giants be killed just because they’re giants? Who knows? These fairy tale messengers of magic lie, cheat, steal, betray and ultimately kill to achieve their wishes, all the while prancing about the forest. The film doesn’t focus so much on its tag line, “Be careful what you wish for,” as on “Be careful the lengths you’ll go to get it.” Freud would have had a field day.
There is also a thin strain of misogyny underlying this. All of the powerful women, human and magical, pay a price for their power with only the indecisive and fatuous coming out unscathed. Marshall has mounted the film as a series of neutral-toned scenes with just the cloak of Red Riding Hood standing out from the bland background. Color can create magic but there’s no effort to use it here.
As a musical, too, the film fails to charm. Sondheim, a splendid lyricist, stumbles badly when it comes to melody and the score expands into one long, monotonic recital. This is no whistle a happy tune soundtrack.
If there is anything truly fun about the film it is Chris Pine’s faithless, feckless Prince Charming whose personal brand of silliness lights up every scene he’s in. “Agony,” his duet with Billy Magnussen about their frustrated love affairs, is the highlight of the movie. Another standout performance is Lilla Crawford’s very unpleasant Little Red Riding Hood. Her stubborn, snarky scenes play like an ironic riff on recent iconic female heroes like Harry Potter’s Hermione Grainger and “The Hunger Games” Katniss Everdeen.
The Grimms and Freud may have had a lot in common but this movie mashup hasn’t produced a happily ever after ending.
See you at the movies!