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Film Review: To see the forest for the trees

Into The Woods is a delightful riot, a maddening mash-up of fairy tales, magic, farce and camp, with a healthy dose of Freudian mockery of macho princes. But the reason this film feels refreshing and subversive (it was adapted from the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine) is its wry, dark spirit — it continues to smile and wink while simultaneously picking the bones of the carcasses of those fluffy Disney tales, acknowledging the eerie undercurrents of the original Brothers Grimm stories.

By Bangkok Post

Saturday 24 January 2015, 12:00PM

This is a Disney film, too, and that makes it all the more head-spinning — in a welcoming way. Into The Woods mixes Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack And The Beanstalk, throws in a childless baker and his wife, and adds a sinister blue-haired witch for good measure. The structure of the story (and the musical) is a bombshell to the tradition of happily-ever-after: the witch dispatches the baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) into the woods to retrieve four magical items that will help the barren couple lift the curse and finally have a child, but the comical quest to obtain those objects is not the whole point.

By the time they’ve acquired Cinderella’s slipper, Rapunzel’s lock, the blood-red hood of Little Red, and a white cow originally belonging to Jack of magic beanstalk fame, the film is far from ending — it doesn’t even let the celebration of the happy denouement linger, instead delving into the terrain of guilt, death, forbidden desire and adult dishonesty. The enchanting woods become a swamp of the subconscious, simmering with the id and superego.

Thus, this is an unusual specimen, a sugar-coated bitter pill from the empire of ice cream. The songs are melodic, the jokes are uproarious, Blunt and Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella) are so enjoyable to watch and, of course, Streep has slipped into the witchy role that’s perfect for her calibrated theatricality — children will enjoy all of those.

Still, it’s clear that the film, especially the black comedy of the last act, is geared fully towards that tricky terrain between adults’ anxieties and enjoyment. It may be said that whatever we see in the film version isn’t as subversive as the original musical, but what we see is dark-tinged enough to throw unsuspecting viewers looking for another piece of Disney candy off their seats.

In this crazy cocktail (“crazy” is complimentary) we also detect the recent Disney trend of questioning its own mythology of princesses and princes. The two strutting peacocks here, played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, are self-absorbed pretty boys, fair game for ridicule. One of the best songs is the princes’ duet, Agony, in which they rip open their shirts and moan about their heartache in delirious histrionics, unaware that they look pathetic, but the film eggs us on to laugh at them.

Meanwhile Rapunzel isn’t actually “rescued” by her bumbling prince, and Cinderella has a habit of running away from her beau. But it’s the baker’s wife who becomes involved in the strangest turn of all.

Desire lies hidden, so in the woods we all go looking for it — and Into the Woods is an odd and merry trip that’s worth your weekend.

Into the Woods

Emily Blunt,
James Corden,
Meryl Streep,
Ana Kendrick,
Johnny Depp
and Chris Pine
Rob Marshall
124 minutes

Three Stars

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