(PG) Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp

by Ben McEachen

Once upon a time, many famous fairytale characters were brought together into a musical of mixed results. And mixed messages. Starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt and pipsqueaks with big lungs, Into The Woods cleverly combines Cinderella, beanstalker Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel… and many more. Their sing-along journey is said to be aimed at children and grown-ups, as suggested by the subject matter and PG rating. However, the chills, chuckles and heartache that turn up, are often just for adults.

Plus, this adult-focused stuff gets increasingly puzzling. While an early number by Mr Wolf (Depp) is a creepy ditty about eating Little Red, even more unsettling are several concluding songs which muddy the waters of morality. What is right, wrong or relative get all mixed up, during songs about relationships between parents and offspring, married couples, and enemies. But before we get to those show-stoppers, let’s go back to the beginning. Because the first half of Into The Woods is quite entertaining.

Based on a Broadway musical composed by legendary Stephen Sondheim (West Side Story, Sweeney Todd), Into The Woods has a baker (James Corden) and his barren wife (Blunt) trying to end a witch’s curse. This involves a library of fairytale characters, criss-crossing paths in The Woods. Mr Wolf’s storyline could frighten younger children, and Streep’s Wicked Witch also provides scares. With so much going on, though, terror isn’t lingered upon. Instead, the many threads draw together with gusto, as all involved seek to possess something wished for.

Into The Woods takes a bizarre turn that you cannot miss. From this point in the story, serious subjects such as adultery, murder and parenting loom large. As they do, you will wish for an explanation about exactly what the events and songs are getting at. An undercurrent of what has been happening ‘in the woods’ is that danger and questionable deeds are good, if personal growth occurs.

The last few songs push further into confused ethics. A cheating spouse justifies their actions by believing it makes them appreciate what they have at home. After a child questions a plot to kill a common enemy, she is told: ‘you decide what’s right, you decide what’s good.’ What ultimately gives this child the ability to make such a decision is the fact that ‘someone is on your side.’ In both examples, morality is a personal choice, agreed upon by one or many.

Where this fairytale musical suggests we should write our own ‘moral of the story’, the Bible demonstrates to the world how living rightly derives from one holy source. A long time ago, in a land far away, God called for His people to ‘be holy, because I am holy’ (recorded in Leviticus 11:44-45). Being holy sounds impossible. Because it is, unless the Holy God helps you.

As stated in 1 Peter, being holy is made possible for anyone who has faith in the salvation offered by Jesus (1:3-16). This doesn’t mean perfection. We’re not God. But conducting ourselves in loving obedience to the Holy One, allows His holiness to shape and guide all we do. Contrast this with the pick-and-choose muddle of Into The Woods. Consider how its promotion of selfish decision-making lacks the consistency and communal benefits of selflessly living for Holy God. 

This review was originally published on Hope 1032. See it here.