‘Into the Woods’ leads us on a journey of self-discovery

“Into the Woods” (2014). Cast: Emily Blunt, James Corden, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie, Richard Glover. Director: Rob Marshall. Screenplay: James Lapine. Musical: James Lapine, Into the Woods. Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Web site. Trailer.

We all know what we want out of life, right? Or do we? Sometimes we’re thoroughly convinced, with unquestioned clarity, about what we hope to realize from our existence, only to find we may not be as sure about our certainty as we thought we were. Such exercises in self-discovery can be surprising, disillusioning and amazingly revelatory, especially when it comes to what we hope to attract into our lives, a circumstance that becomes startlingly apparent in the cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical fantasy, “Into the Woods.”

Just as in the real world, everyone in the land of fairy tales wants something:

• A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are a childless couple desperately looking to add a bundle of joy to their life. But, alas, success inexplicably eludes them. What are they to do? How can they resolve this painful longing?

• A spunky young girl in a scarlet cape (Lilla Crawford) looks to pay a visit to her grandmother (Annette Crosbie) in the forest. Little Red Riding Hood hopes for a safe journey and an enjoyable time with granny. But will her wish materialize?

• A poor farm woman (Tracey Ullman) unable to cover her debts desperately looks for a way to pay her bills. Her solution is to sell her aging dairy cow, Milky White, who is no longer able to live up to its namesake. She tasks her son, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), to pawn off their sorry bovine asset on anyone who will take her. But the young lad hesitates, feeling as though he’s being asked to rid himself of a beloved family member. Nevertheless, despite Jack’s reservations, his mother sends him on his way to make a sale, hoping he’ll bring home a bounty that will solve their financial problems. The question is, will he succeed? Or will his efforts just amount to a hill of beans?

• A beautiful but lonely maiden (Mackenzie Mauzy) is confined to an inaccessible tower. In fact, the only way anyone is able to see Rapunzel is when she lets down her flowing golden locks, which are so long and thick that they double as a makeshift rope, enabling visitors to climb their way up to her chamber. But Rapunzel longs for more than just occasional itinerant visitors; she wants a more fulfilling life. Will someone come along to rescue her from her solitude?

• A beautiful but oppressed young woman (Anna Kendrick) wants a better life, one that gets her out from under the thumb of her demanding stepmother (Christine Baranski) and self-centered stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch). To that end, Cinderella longs to find the man of her dreams, someone who will take her away from her dreary existence, giving her a life of love, respect, abundance and glamour. But, given all the tiresome household chores she’s endlessly saddled with performing, the poor girl never gets a chance to pursue her dream. Perhaps the spirit of Cinderella’s deceased mother (Joanna Riding), who has always provided for her, can help. But will she? And, if so, how?

The key to the fulfillment (or denial) of all these wishes ultimately lies with a nasty witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door to the baker and his wife. She tells the couple that they’re childless because of a curse she placed on their house years earlier, a fate that jinxed the baker’s father (Simon Russell Beale) and all of his unborn progeny for his alleged commission of a transgression against her. However, the witch says she’s now willing to lift the curse if the couple can produce four distinct items within three days’ time: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold.

The baker and his wife initially believe the witch’s request is unrealistic, one that can’t possibly be fulfilled in time. But, given the stakes involved, they quickly realize they must at least give it a try. Little do they know that fulfilling the request may be easier than they thought; all they need do is find a way to cross paths with all those other characters looking to fulfill their ambitions. And, to make that happen, the baker and his wife – just like all of their fellow wish seekers – head off to a magical place where they believe their dreams have the greatest chance of coming true – into the woods.

Once in the woods, fortuitous synchronicities occur that bring together all of the story’s principals. Their interactions with one another – as well as those with an assortment of other colorful characters, including a wolf (Johnny Depp), a pair of princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) and an angry giant (Frances de la Tour) – lead to the fulfillment (in one way or another) of their aspirations. But do their wishes pan out as hoped for? That all depends on the arboreal experiences they each create for themselves.

For the characters in this story, venturing “into the woods” is akin to venturing into the deep, dark, unilluminated recesses of our consciousness, a metaphorical, physically expressed representation of the place where all potential possibilities for materialization reside and await activation, depending on what manifesting motivations we imbue them with. What we do with such potential, though, determines what outcomes we realize. As a consequence, we must be careful what we wish for, and that all comes down to our beliefs, for they drive the manifestation process that results in the materialization of our reality through the practice of conscious creation.

In that regard, the woods in this film are almost a character of their own, acting as a repository of our hopes, fears, wishes and dreams, all of which ultimately derive their existence (and subsequent physical manifestation) from the beliefs that underlie them. In some cases, things work out precisely as hoped for. In others, they come close to the mark but don’t hit the target exactly. And, in others still, they’re totally off base. So, if we wonder why the results come up as they do, we need to look at the beliefs driving the process, an assessment that may reveal to us that those intents aren’t always what we think they are, a conclusion that may prompt us into rewriting those beliefs as needed to better realize our hoped-for outcomes. It’s an exercise in self-discovery that can be quite revelatory, to say the least.

Interestingly, an evaluation like this may rely heavily on the role of synchronicity. When seemingly significant “coincidences” occur, they provide us with important clues as to whether we’re on the right path and, in turn, whether our hopes will be realized. For instance, as the baker and his wife search for the items requested by the witch, even skeptics would likely agree that it’s more than a little coincidental that they “just happen” to run into Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella in short order during their trek into the woods. The fact that they encounter just what they need just when they need it should tell them (and us) something about the effectiveness of their belief formation abilities and their adeptness as conscious creators. Their experience thus provides an excellent example for all of us.

No matter how we emerge from “the woods,” however, our experience of them will almost assuredly change us forever (one would hope for the wiser), and, in all likelihood, we’ll never go back to being who we once were. And, regardless of whether or not we need to tweak our beliefs to fulfill our goals, we must be sure to remember that we always have the ability to make our dreams come true – as long as we believe we can and as long as we’re true to ourselves.

Those who have followed my writings over the years know all too well that I’m not a huge fan of musicals in general (on the screen or otherwise) or of Stephen Sondheim’s material in particular. Nevertheless, this is a surprisingly entertaining film, probably because the movie’s special effects wizardry makes it possible to give life to this production in ways that a stage setting can’t. Its clever fusion of multiple fairy tale story lines in one narrative is indeed fun. The use of big name screen and stage talent shows wise casting decisions, and the performances are all generally quite capable (especially Streep and Baranski). However, even with the elimination of an assortment of musical numbers from the original stage production, the saga here still goes on a bit too long, especially in the last 45 minutes, which can become tedious at times. However, given the generally fun-filled nature of the story and the picture, I believe the length is tolerable (though I don’t know if I would have been able to say the same if the cuts hadn’t been made).

The picture has received its fair share of recognition in this year’s awards competitions. In completed contests, it earned three Golden Globe Award nominations (best comedy/musical film, best comedy/musical actress for Blunt and best supporting actress for Streep) and five Critics Choice Award nods (best acting ensemble, best supporting actress for Streep, best art direction, best costume design, and best hair & makeup) but took home no statues. In competitions yet to come, the film has received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for best supporting actress (Streep) and three Oscar nods (best supporting actress for Streep, best production design and best costume design).

A visit to the woods – be it literal or metaphorical – can be quite intriguing, a venue wherein we can lose ourselves, or find ourselves, or rediscover ourselves, sometimes all in the same journey. But, regardless of what happens, what we bring back from our personal odyssey may amaze us in ways we never imagined. The storybook notions we hold about our lives and our selves may be forever shattered by the experience, but the new insights we glean could be more fulfilling than any of the alleged promises held out by even the rosiest of fairy tales.

Copyright © 2014-2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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