“Into the Woods” belongs out of the theater

by Andrew Kingsley | 1/25/15 9:38pm

The new Disney films are like bottled water — they repackage something classic, give it all these bells and whistles and come up with something no better than the original. We shell out our money nonetheless, consuming this trivial drivel as if we are expecting something new. After “Maleficent” (2014) I swore to myself not to see another live-action Disney adaptation, yet some masochistic force or evil fairy godmother compelled me to the theater to see their latest offering, “Into the Woods” (2014).

An adaption of the Tony Award-winning 1987 Broadway hit of the same name, “Into the Woods” brings together a variety of classic fairy tales, including “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In the film, a baker and his wife — cursed by a wicked witch — must collect a slipper, a red coat, golden hair and a white cow to break the spell and have the child that they desire. All the fairy tales exist in the same wooded universe, leading to unexpected interactions between our favorite fabled figures. What sounds like a complete mess actually runs rather smoothly, thanks to the writing of James Lapine and the witty lyrics of Steven Sondheim. The film, however, is far less than the sum of its parts.

Late critic Roger Ebert acerbically said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” The play version of “Into the Woods” is famous for its trick ending halfway through, which then introduces the second act. After 80 minutes of the movie I was eager to leave, putting on my coat and hoping that Disney had neatly tied its bow. Unfortunately, a giant terrorizes the kingdom, harkening in another hour of eventless pabulum supersized with extra moral filling. In trying to kill off the giant, the plot tries too hard to break from tradition, making Prince Charming into Prince Cheating while the baker’s wife abandons her husband and newborn child. Like Rapunzel’s hair, it keeps going and could use a good cut.

Even the movie’s poster is too long, rattling off the ensemble of mega names that make up the film like Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden and Chris Pine, most of whom seem as uncomfortable with their singing as Russell Crowe in “Les Miserables” (2012). Even the great Meryl Streep, blessed be her name, who as Eric Stonestreet’s character on “Modern Family” put it, “could play Batman and be the right choice,” somehow does not make a convincing witch. Ironically, Meryl Streep has said that she dislikes how old women are demonized as witches in cinema. A diamond in the rough, her witch lacked that cackling, misanthropic bite of a leprous outcast.

Only Blunt and Kendrick are up to the task, with Blunt bringing an effortless sensitivity and playfulness to the baker’s wife and Kendrick showing off her “Pitch Perfect” (2012) chops as Cinderella. Both give natural life and light to the gloomy, tree-covered set, while the rest of the ensemble give off artificial, histrionic performances, as if being driven by a director off stage screaming “Bigger! Bigger!” How Rob Marshall, the director of “Nine” (2009) and the Academy-Award winning “Chicago” (2002) created this film is a mystery.

Next up in Disney’s queue of movies is “Cinderella” (2015). I wonder what Walt Disney would think of his company’s recent streak? Granted, “Maleficent” and “Into the Woods” have raked in $758 million and $155 million, respectively, but at what cost? Disney once claimed that “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.” These films have drifted away from their founder’s motives and are too focused on the bottom line to venture into new territory. Disney itself cannot go into the woods, so it looks like they’re staying safe at home.

Rating: 5/10

“Into the Woods” is playing at The Nugget every day at 6:50 p.m., as well as 1:30 p.m. on weekends and 9:20 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.