‘Into the Woods’ is no ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’

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Catholic News Service

Despite its fairy-tale roots, and Christmas Day release date, “Into the Woods” is an inappropriate choice for youthful moviegoers.

Though initially pleasing, this ultimately problematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s long-running 1987 stage musical reflects on its iconic source material in a way that might misguide impressionable viewers.

Meryl Streep stars in a scene from the movie "Into the Woods." The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. (CNS photo/Peter Mountain, courtesy Disney)
Meryl Streep stars in a scene from the movie “Into the Woods.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. (CNS photo/Peter Mountain, courtesy Disney)

As scripted by Lapine, the action wittily interweaves a number of classic children’s stories with its main narrative tracing the quest of a village baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to undo the curse of barrenness placed on his family by a witch (Meryl Streep) whom his father (Simon Russell Beale) long ago wronged.

To break the spell, the childless couple must assemble a series of objects, each of which is connected to a familiar fable.

Thus they cross paths with damsels-in-distress Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and with their respective princely rescuers (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen); with pert Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) as she tangles with the wily Wolf (Johnny Depp); and with a peasant boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) who, much to his short-tempered mother’s (Tracey Ullman) impending chagrin, has a giant beanstalk looming in his future.

All of this transpires whimsically enough at first under Rob Marshall’s direction. In particular, the central duo’s mutual devotion appears exemplary, and bears fruit not only in cooperation but in the pastry chef’s belated recognition of his spouse’s determination and resourcefulness.

But late plot developments lead into brooding reflections on the two-edged legacy of gaining worldly experience: Is it best to stay at home in a safe environment or to venture into the disorienting terra incognita symbolized by the woods, a confusing landscape where the norms of everyday life are set aside?

More disturbingly, the screenplay seems to suggest that those who have been intrepid enough to explore the unknown can jettison objective moral standards in favor of do-it-yourself ethics.

On the surface, this may involve only the rejection of prefabricated criteria, such as those that would inevitably pigeonhole the witch as evil and the more appealing characters as noble and blameless. But a far more sweeping interpretation can reasonably be given to lyrics like these: “You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good … .”

“Into the Woods” subverts the conventional idea of a straightforward happy ending, forcing audiences to ponder more convoluted meanings and eventualities. While youngsters would find themselves ill-equipped to engage with such subtleties, at least some older teens may possibly be equal to the task.

The film contains complex moral themes requiring mature discernment, a scene of adulterous kissing, some stylized violence and the mildly abusive treatment of minors. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III. adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested.