The story, in the tradition of fairytales, begins appropriately with "Once Upon a Time," a phrase designed to transport us from chronos to kairos. The plot is a mash-up of fairytales. All of the fairytales share the same woods. And, as the "woods" are a traditional story-place where characters are tested and assume a new sense of purpose, the film depends upon a comic sense of synchronicity as different sub-plots are woven into one dramatic finale. Of course each of the individual fairytales had to be twisted, snipped and spliced in order to be threaded into the uber-narrative of the film.
This is a musical and the videography is close as it was in Les Miserables, but unlike Les Mis the vocals do not exhibit the reality of imperfection when songs are sung from the center of a passion. This is Disney and it is ordered and meticulous. The characters sing beautifully and their notes are true as though they were at Carnegie Hall, not stuck in the woods. Disney has a way of reminding us that what we are experiencing is just a fiction.
Despite the civilized orderliness of the music, it is the soundtrack that carries the film. The lyrics are clever and entertaining. The character's often sing against each other and do so with skill and precision. The vocal abilities of the younger actors were a pleasure both to watch and to hear. The sets were downplayed and stuck me as more fitting to a staged musical than a high-budget film.
The film was well casted. The vocals were very well done and so was the acting. Of course Johnny Depp was wickedly funny and Meryl Streep was dramatic and emotive, but my favorite actor was Lilla Crawford who played Little Red. She radiated a complex representation of innocence and indulgence with every appearance.
I think I can add without being a spoiler that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the wisdom (it was a bit much to be considered a moral - or amoral for that matter) of the film. 'In the Woods" teaches us
What we wish for may not appear in the way we expected;
Even if we get what we wish for, we should not expect it to last long;
There are untold causes which bring about both the good and bad;
(i.e. we all share in the responsibility for each); and
We never get out of the woods, we have to learn to learn to support each other in the face of adversity and uncertainty which is often beyond our control.
For me, this movie overcomes much of what I have found lacking in the worlds of Disney. Instead of characters who are on the side of good or evil, "In the Woods" presents characters just trying to get by in the face of misfortune and the competing interests of others. Instead of a happy ending, this film offers the more modest promise of happiness in phases which arise from time to time in the ever changing world for which we are all responsible. There is no way out, but we do have each other and we can help to create a clearing in the woods for the happiness of ourselves and others.