I was disappointed with Into The Woods not because it was a horrible film, but because it had so many good things going for it. It is a creative take on the classical Grim brothers fairy tales in the spirit of the musical Wicked's treatment of Oz, sharing the same composer and writer. It has a lot of things to recommend it: an engaging story, great actors who have voices to stun, music that is fun and lively, emotional ups and downs, and beautiful scenery. What it lacks, however, is a coherent ending and a little something more.
The story centers around a couple, the Baker and his wife (Emily Blunt and James Corden), who are a young but childless couple after a few years of marriage. The Witch (Meryl Streep) informs them that it was the Baker's father who incurred her wrath by breaking into her garden before the Baker himself was even conceived. She cursed his family to be infertile, but offers to lift it if he will help her recover items from each of the other fairy tales (as she cannot even touch them). The Baker and his wife consider the offer, but agree in their desperation and set off on a quest to find items such as Riding Hood's red cape or Cinderella's slipper.
The musical is not as catchy as songs from some other more well-known pieces such as Wicked's "Defying Gravity," or any number from the Book of Mormon, but the songs are still heart-moving and further the plot well. Johnny Depp is a mediocre Big Bad Wolf, but the three shining stars are Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Meryl Streep as the Witch, and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. Overall, however, the story moves along and has some even quite comedic numbers, such as in the song "Agony."
What torpedoes much of the musical, for me, is the final act. I have a strict no-spoiler policy, so it will not ruin your experience to say the following: the movie ends with an explicit endorsement of moral relativism in the final song "No One is Alone." In the song, Cinderella and the Baker counsel the children not to think that there is a right and wrong answer to their moral dilemmas. Instead, they just need to honor that people have a right to freely choose moral options. It is not, as would be quite normal, to say something about growing up and making moral choices in a difficult, harsh, and ambiguous environment. Instead, they sing, "You decide what's good. You decide alone. But no one is alone." No good or evil, just deciding "together." A creed of relativism and a sickly kind of toleration that flattens any question of searching for the true or the good.
While people might endorse relativism or have differing opinions on my possibly over-theoretical concerns, it struck me as making nonsense of the very questioning the children had in regard to their choices and even of the behavior that the Baker's wife exhibits in the final act, compromising her integrity. It leads to the dissolution of any conclusion to the story, dropping the bottom out of any coherent message that it was intending to offer. So, as a consequence, the musical ends in a very post-modern way: by not ending at all. While it may work in other contexts, Into the Woods suffers from a lack of coherence despite its creative design, music, and storytelling devices.
My Rating: 6.5 out of 10.
[I had written my post a few days before his, but Taylor Marshall - another blogger and philosopher - had much the same reaction to the message of the movie that I did. Check out his blog if you're interested.]