First: it's no Through the Woods, the horror-based graphic novel by Emily Carroll. Though both works use travelling in woods as metaphor, it's to rather different ends, and, frankly, Carroll does it better. Rather, it's the musical turned movie. In case you're unfamiliar with the plot, its essential idea is that it takes four strands of fairy tales and puts them in a blender. There's the baker and his wife, who are trying to break a witch's curse by collecting a cloak red as blood, hair yellow as corn, cow white as milk, and shoe gold uh, gold; a girl going to grandmother's house; a boy Jack trying to sell his best friend, the cow; Rapunzel of corn-yellow hair, and Cinderella, who probably doesn't need further explanation. They all get in each other's way, and, long story short, the survivors work together to fend off a giant woman. As you do.
Two of the music numbers in particular stuck with me, not because of the music really (honestly, all of the songs were kind of forgettable), but because of what they said about fairy tales. The first was sung by Prince Charming and his brother, where they try to one up each other with tales of love-lorn woe: respectively, that one keeps fleeing the ball at night, and one is stuck up in a tower where the only means of access is her hair. And it's hilarious. One rips his shirt open in a fit of passion; the other does too, because, well, you can't be upstaged when you're singing to no one in the middle of the woods. It's a song that perfectly captures the campiness of the project, the gentle mocking of the whole idea of Prince Charming.
Likewise, my other favorite also skewers the idea of fairy tale. Near the end, the aforementioned survivors are quarreling over whose fault the giant woman's assault is, and eventually they turn their accusations to the witch. She takes all of five seconds of that before launching into her own song, then being swallowed up by the earth, the gist of the song being, "Fuck all y'all, everyone has life tough, I'm outs." First: the witch is played by Meryl Streep, so already it's a recipe for being awesome. You'd have to actually work at making Maryl Streep bad in something. Second: I like the point of the song, which is that, yes, if you need fairy tales, if you need good and evil, then you do need someone to blame, but life isn't as simple as that. Also, fuck all you guys, like any of you are any better. Which, really, is something we all feel, isn't it?
It kind of lost me in the second act, which is unfortunate, because it's where things are supposedly getting interesting. The second act is where the happy ending of the fairy tale gets deconstructed; instead of everyone's happily ever after, the giant's wife shows up, and people start dying at an alarming rate. Now, that's a premise that's got potential, especially if you want to point out that rather than living in a fairy tale, it's better to have your "moment in the woods" and go back to the rest of your life. But it felt like the film was going in too many directions--pathos for the multiple deaths and resulting despair, some farce in the baker's wife having a fling with Prince Charming ("I'm in the wrong story!"), and somehow wrangle an actual happy ending. But it didn't really work for me. Take Cinderella and the Prince's parting--their final words post-break-up are "I'll always remember the girl I chased after" and "I'll always remember the prince from afar." It's played as this bittersweet moment, but really, it's terrible--they are basically saying to each other "I really wish you turned out to be the imaginary version of you I had in my head, and getting to know you made things worse." Now, that's a great sentiment in a farcical send-up for fairy tales. And a good character beat for a realistic relationship. But it's played straight, and... eh.
Or take the Prince's fling with baker's wife. Ok, it kind of sets the idea that she gets a bit starstruck by royalty. And that, for whatever reason, the woods really do it for her. But she's one of the more grounded characters in the story, and before this point, her main arc has been getting her husband to realize they need to work together for a child. The seduction happens a little too instantly, in the face of all that. But again, the subsequent part where she realizes that she was glad the moment happened, but prefers her own life--good, mature relationship beat, good farcical bit. But then she's immediately killed by the giant woman after coming to this conclusion, so it comes across that the story is punishing her for sexual violation. Which is kind of a mixed message.
Or take the giant woman. Now, even by the original story standards, she's pretty justified in coming down and being angry; Jack stole from her and murdered her husband after she welcomed her into his home (less justified: the mass destruction towards people who had nothing to do with her plight). So the struggle against her is less good versus evil and more "well, whatever we few remainders need to do to stay alive." The song to commemorate the fight "Not Alone" kind of gets at that, when it discusses how there's no good or bad, just sides, but at the same time, it's pitched as kind of a rallying lullabye--I think I would have preferred something more darker, and Pyrrhic.
I didn't mind what the film was trying to do. Taking shots at fairy tales and exploring the woods as a sort of Bhaktinian carnival (you can't spell carnival without the letters for carnal!) are both good things. But I like my characters a bit more developed, or my farces with a bit more of a knowing wink. So while the actors are great and the concept is fine, it didn't come together for me.
Or to put it differently: singing numbers that aren't as catchy as I'd like them. Emotional beats that lacked the development needed to pull them off. Radical shifts in tone. It's a modern musical, all right.
(Final thought: Even though the metaphor is more apt, the sexual awakening subtext for Little Red Riding Hood does get a little creepy when the part is played by a 13 year old/)