Note: By “betrayal” I do not mean that I feel betrayed by the movie. Betrayal is a technical term used to describe a method of storytelling in which the audience is led to believe one thing is the case when, in the third act, it is revealed the storytellers have been misleading them all along.
Once every year or two, after my wife and I have watched a film that has told its story with a certain combination of uniqueness and excellence, I will turn to my wife and tell her, “This is the movie of the year.” These movies usually lend themselves to some of the most stimulating conversations in our homes. We recommend them highly to our friends and family, and we can’t stop talking about them for months. Into the Woods is not one of these movies.
In fact, I had the opposite reaction to this movie. For the first time since Lost in Translation, my experience with Into the Woods resulted in me using an absolute negative to describe a movie. What do I mean by “absolute negative”? An absolute positive might be a word like “best,” or “greatest,” or “most excellent.” Well, Into the Woods was the worst Disney movie I have ever seen.
Into the Woods is a smash-up of several different Brothers Grimm fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Given some of the previews I’d seen of it, I was under the impression that it would be a largely accurate portrayal of the original stories and a respite from such horrible attempts as Jack the Giant Slayer and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. The cast also seemed to be well chosen with picks such as Meryl Streep, Johnnie Depp, and Emily Blunt. I was even pleasantly surprised to see Traci Ullman joining the cast.
In spite of everything it has going for it, Into the Woods is still the worst Disney movie I have ever seen. And yet, for the most part, I loved it. Wait, what?!? How could it be the worst Disney movie and yet, for the most part, Billy loved it? This will be the fun part of the review, just as it was the fun part of the movie for me.
What I Absolutely Loved
The first thing I loved about the movie were the songs (at least in the beginning). My favorite musical growing up had to have been Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder. There were great storyline elements, the characters were richly drawn, and there were lessons to be learned from the nasty little brats that accompany Charlie on his tour of the factory. Yet, the thing that most people remember about Willie Wonka is the amazing soundtrack. Few live-action movies measure up to Willie Wonka (song-wise) quite like Into the Woods. The songs are funny and the singing is top-notch. The lines can be hard to follow from time to time, but it’s all part of the fast-paced experience of the film.
The writing, acting, and special effects are all what one might expect going into a Disney movie. For the first two acts of the movie, the storyline weaves together fairly seamlessly, even though there are several stories being strung together all at once. The producers seem to have made some wise choices in the editing room as well, choosing to tell some of the more fantastic elements of the story through song rather than through long, drawn-out scenes that would have slowed down the pace of the movie.
Perhaps the high water mark of the movie for me was how true to the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales some of the elements of the stories were. Spoiler Alert!!! Just as in Brothers Grimm, Cinderella attends a three-day festival rather than a two-hour ball, oft visits her mother’s grave, and marries the prince only after her evil step-sisters lop off one her big toe and the other her heel to try to fit into the gold slipper. Jack comes off, just as in Brothers Grimm, as a klepto. Rapunzel is a peasant girl who is kidnapped by a witch, because her parents stole from the witch’s garden, she gets involved with the King’s son, and he gets his eyes gouged out by some thorns as a result of the witch’s jealousy. Many of these elements are taken straight from the original fairy tales and, surprisingly, they are pulled off with taste.
What I Absolutely Hated
Many movies are implicitly preachy. I don’t mind preachy; after-all, I’m a preacher. However, I do prefer for the preachiness of a movie to be implicit rather than explicit. In Into the Woods, there is a certain worldview that is preached, and it is by no means implicit. One article I read referred to the worldview as nominalism, an ancient Greek philosophical worldview. However, I think that gives the writers too much intellectual credit. Rather, what I got from the movie is more akin to “the spirit of the age.”
What it offers is a post-modern, relativistic worldview in which right and wrong are oppressive concepts and lethal when introduced into the philosophical veins of little children. Parents are the greatest of oppressors, and authority figures in general, but “moral” authorities specifically, should be undermined at all costs. Again, I don’t mind preachy, but this worldview is woven into song and spoken with dogmatic fervor as the way that we all ought to think about the world around us. I’ll take my post-modern relativism with a little more subtlety and implicitness, thank you!
The worldview and the preachiness weren’t the worst part of it all for me, however. It was the fact that it came without warning in the third act. In storytelling, the worst thing a writer / storyteller can do is betray his audience. If the story is a ghost story, you don’t wait to reveal supernatural elements until the third act. You slowly introduce them here and there, opening up your audiences’ minds to the possibility of ghosts along the way. Otherwise, when they get to the end of your story and find that it was a ghost all along, they will feel cheated.
In Into the Woods, there is no suggestion along the way that you are going to be preached at in the third act. Spoiler Alert!!! They don’t tell you that suddenly, and without warning, the baker’s wife and Cinderella’s prince are going to start making out. They don’t tell you that concepts such as right and wrong, and our ability to distinguish between them, even whether or not we should attempt to distinguish between them, are going to be questioned. No, they don’t just question moral absolutes, they condemn with strong words the idea that we should teach children to see the world in such a way.
This movie is utterly deplorable. For all of its greatness in the first and second acts, it pretty much shoots itself in the head and lights itself on fire in the third act. I give it zero of a possible five stars.