True to director Rob Marshall’s proclamation that Into the Woods is “a fairy-tale for the post-9/11 generation”, Disney’s all-star Christmas release from last year sees the company’s family-centric model fragmented. Shot largely at London’s Shepperton Studios – Alexander Korda’s old stomping ground and the home of The Third Man – this fantastically staged movie throws its characters into a wilderness of hope and regret, often in tandem, as it intertwines many traditional fairy-tales in a web of broken dreams, wants and needs. Lifted from Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 Broadway musical of the same name, Woods is a notably darker entry in Disney’s second renaissance, but it’s still a fun time either way.
James Corden and Emily Blunt play a humble bakery-owning couple struggling to conceive, when a Witch (Meryl Streep) suddenly appears out of nowhere and declares that she cursed the family years ago, almost like a terrible Angel Gabriel. To rectify matters, they must collect souvenirs from several Brothers Grimm stories – Rapunzel, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk – which will in turn reform the Witch’s beauty. Her reason for bestowing a curse upon the family is utterly ridiculous – the baker’s father stole six beans from the Witch’s garden – but who cares anyway, because part of Woods‘ charm is in getting swept up in its daft premise. The bakers then venture into the woods where the fairy-tale protagonists roam, and here every character’s respective desires cause ripple effects throughout the wider narrative.
While Streep received yet another Oscar nomination for her role here, and although she is certainly fantastic, it is Blunt who really steals the show. Plagued by her infertility and hopelessly driven towards motherhood, she gives a warm and entirely lovable performance despite her character’s mistakes, delivering a level of humanity that is rarely seen in musicals. That Blunt actually became pregnant during production is a funny coincidence, but it also likely supplemented her character’s emotional gravitas. The talent alongside her includes Anna Kendrick as the love-stricken Cinderella and Chris Pine as her exuberant Prince Charming, both of whom expand upon their natural charisma in the construction of two perfectly strong performances. Woods is about coming together, but it doesn’t always do that itself, and so it’s the fine ensemble that keeps this thing from falling apart in ribbons more than anything else.
Although Woods wasn’t conceived as a Disney movie – it belonged to Columbia way back in the 90s until they put it into turnaround – it has nevertheless become a resolutely ‘Disney’ package, and as a result, the dark Sondheim play feels considerably sterilised in its adaptation. But while the filmmakers wouldn’t have been expected to further emphasise its tougher aspects in a PG-rated product (i.e. Johnny Depp’s dangerously paedophilic Wolf), the complaint pertains mostly to the movie’s emotional dealings; it differentiates itself tonally and thematically between all three acts, so the film winds up forfeiting any catharsis it probably should have had, almost as if Marshall couldn’t figure out how to translate the play into a family targeting movie. Blunt, Streep, Pine and Kendrick are all responsible for holding the film down, and overall, Into the Woods manages to feel like a good movie, even if I’m not entirely sure it is one. Regardless, consuming a Disney product involves participating in a fantasy, and with its excellent set design, worthy cast and invaluable source material, this one is arguably worth believing in.