With hope towards a return to the classic movie musical, director Rob Marshall disappoints again with his misguided adaptation of the hit musical from Stephen Sondhiem and James Lapine.
Once upon a time in a land far far away, when “Into the Woods” first hit the Broadway stage nearly 30(!) years ago — the deliciously dark fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods” won a handful of well-deserved Tony® Awards. In the years that followed, it also won fans all over the world with it’s familiar fairy tale stories being converged into one humongous encompassing story in which everything every familiar cataclysm happens to the group as entire unit.
But this time as Walt Disney Pictures and Oscar®-nominated “Chicago” director Rob Marshall attempt to add to that successful lineage with their richly produced big-screen version of the Stephen Sondheim-penned musical, much of the magic feels completely sucked out from the entire affair, and that’s the biggest shame of this attempt at an adaptation.
It’s not for lack of trying on the director’s and or any actor’s part, or for lack of spending budget on Disney’s part. Marshall’s film is nothing if visually stunning to look at, with its Brother’s Grimm-tinged production pieces, the fabulously designed costumes and a general visual grandness that screams if you didn’t know we adapted this straight from the land “BROAD-WAAAY” America! This “Into the Woods” looks precisely like it is clearly set in some fairy-tale realm you’d dream about that always exists in your dreams whether fictitious or not.
Who Isn’t In This Mis-Mash Fairytale of a Movie?
Likewise, it benefits from an appealing cast that stretches the boundaries of what you think a Broadway musical adaption should look like. It is topped off with the reigning queen of motion pictures, Meryl Streep in the leading or rather supporting role (depends on your perspective) of the wicked witch who sets the entire story of “Into the Woods” into motion by sending a childless baker and his wife (nicely played by James Corden and Emily Blunt) into the nearby woods to collect four key ingredients in order to break a long spell that the witch originally set in motion thanks to the actions of the baker’s father. It’s there that their paths cross with a number of established fairy-tale characters, including Johnny Depp as a oddly over-sexualized Zoot Suited big, bad wolf; Anna Kendrick as a certain curfew-challenged princess-to-be who simply cannot make up her mind; and Chris Pine as her hammy Prince Charming.
Other familiar storybook folk they encounter in Marshall’s fairy-tale mashup include Little Red Riding Hood (play to an annoying hilt by Lilla Crawford); Jack, of beanstalk fame (played by an even more annoying and know-it-all Daniel Huttlestone); and Rapunzel (completely out of it, but a still lovely Mackenzie Mauzy).
As strong as that cast and those visuals are, however, they don’t quite add up enough to guarantee a happily-ever-after for moviegoers looking for a memorable movie musical experience. And that the real sad thing here. As expectations were so high and somehow fell so far.
With its often grating talk-singing lyrics and few true show-stopping production numbers (Blunt’s soulful rendition of “Any Moment” and Streep’s swaying “Stay With Me” come the closest there, and barely at that), this “Into the Woods” — with all its talk of wishes and desires, but somehow misses out on the soul — is largely devoid of anything resembling a charming fairy tale that you’ll remember for a lifetime after watching. Not only do its attempts at humor fall mostly flat, but it also suffers through multiple extended lulls in move’s script, never quite sparking to life the way one would wish for it to or expect it to considering the pedigree behind it.
Much has been made of Streep’s performance as “The Witch” as she became the first woman to actually play a witch to get an Oscar® nomination. There’s no doubt that Streep raises the bar above the subpar script, but it’s hard not to think much of that Oscar® talk comes from Meryl Streep being Meryl Streep (Hell even at said Oscars® presenter Jared Leto joked it’s required by state law that Streep has to be nominated). That’s not to take anything away from her. She’s an undeniably brilliant actress and great in this role as expected, the best of her generation (perhaps of all time). Still, she doesn’t do anything here that any number of other actresses couldn’t have done around her own age; and I guarantee they would not be considered locks for Oscar® nomination for this role.
There’s Something Here But No One Knows What To Do With It…
In fact, it’s that sort of ‘meh” that really characterizes Marshall’s film as a whole, which should be more enjoyable than it is.
It comes tantalizing close to springing to life at times, particularly in the film’s first two thirds, when the cast still seems to be having fun with the whole thing. But the longer it goes on, the more playfulness is drained from the story. Maybe everyone just got bored after a while. By the time the baker and his wife team up with various fairy-tale heroes for a second-half showdown with a common foe, things have become downright banal. I wish I could have seen the actual Broadway version to see how they handled the long winded story line mixed with songs.
That goes not only for the dramatic elements, but also for its visual elements, which — though big — eventually become dominated by shadowy and thematically repetitive deep-in-the-woods sets. I kept thinking to myself why do they seem to return to the same place over and over again in that damn depressed wooded area?
It’s also in the film’s second half that the story itself is at its darkest. Granted, as he is working under the Disney banner, Marshall is clearly working to make the story more family-friendly than the stage production. So, gone is the third-act death of at least one character. (I won’t give it away but many fans of the original musical were worried about this potential change). Similarly, an adulterous affair between two others is reduced to allusion and innuendo. Before the second of three overall deaths happen, it happens off screen with no impact at all.
The prevailing narrative theme of “Into the Woods” is being careful what one wishes for. That proves to be especially true for those Broadway fans who have been wishing for years for a big-screen “Into the Woods.”
Sure, Marshall’s film totally scored as the big family movie of the holiday season in terms of the box-office. (It’s out on DVD/ BluRay now) And that’s all we movie musical buffs can hope for when waiting for (hopefully) the next adaptation of “Wicked” or say “Spring Awakening” Let’s just hope it’s not another adaption of “Annie.” Ugh please God no! But it’s hard not to view it also as a big disappointment in terms of creatively and what Marshall had on his hands source-wise.
Bottom Line: You’re Not Missing Much By Missing This.
“Into the Woods” adds up to tame stuff when compared to the majority of overt sexuality currently being displayed in popular movies, but in a genre so increasingly bent on shielding young people from anything without a sugar coating it, it’s actually disheartening to at least see characters be allowed to pursue their (sometimes) dubious wants and desires but then suffer their share of consequences. In grand brothers Grimm fashion, characters are blinded, dismembered, and, in a few cases, even killed, but in a truly sanitized world all off camera with nothing more than a frolicsome wink as a result. By adapting his own book into a script, Lapine managed to break open an already uneven medium between the adult-oriented liberties of theater and we assume the heavy-handed filters of the Disney machine. While Marshall, ever the director that we believe who can, most of the time, conjure some marvelous musical numbers amid the clunky whole manages to come the closest to matching the tone with his smattering of showstoppers.
What I didn’t appreciate was having poor Chris Pine forced to go full-tilt and play it for laughs in mocking his own dreamboat image in his version of the classic song “Agony,” his pretty-hurts duet with fellow heart breaker and fellow prince Billy Magnussen, is a campy low-light, complete with bared chests and high kicks in a waterfall setting that is an unintentional embarrassment for all involved.
At least Streep, is really given the leading lady space to soar away with the entire show, which like I previously said can come across as both a blessing and a curse. She at least proves she is a formidable part-time vocalist by beautifully blazing through all of her songs, which run the gamut from kooky to desperate to flat-out depressing, and which, given the witch’s central role in the story, feel logically spotlit as opposed to being mere kowtowing to the legend that is Streep. Still, while young Crawford and Huttlestone vocally are the only weak links in the tuneful cast (And Emily Blunt, specifically, revives many a scene with her transcendent strong singing), Streep and Blunt both outshine their co-stars to the point that their own absence towards the last third becomes an unfortunate detriment to the entire film.
Even before the film’s climax, when the curse reversal de-ages the witch into a beauty, “Into the Woods”—which runs an exhausting 124 minutes—already starts to unravel faster than Rapunzel’s own severed locks. Plot lines start running rampant and drawn out and then are abruptly ended, your interest will start to wane, and the brazen morals more saucily delivered in the movie’s first two thirds become buried in literal and figurative final-act rubble. But most egregious is the overall lull that manifests after Streep’s final number, a swirling, oddly throaty rendition of Sondheim’s famed “Last Midnight.” This overall is another attempt at bringing the Broadway musical to the silver screen and this attempt is another swing for the fences that overall misses with almost every at bat.