Into the Woods

Note: A version of this review was originally published in Kitcher Drawer's Volume 7, Issue 3. For more, visit kitchendrawer.net

Depending on your vantage point, Rob Marshall's adaptation of Into the Woods is a breath of fresh air or a crushing disappointment. On the one hand, we have a movie almost entirely comprised of talented actors/singers performing the music of Stephen Sondheim, and we haven't had the pleasure of experiencing such a thing on the big screen since Tim Burton's 2007 adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. There aren't enough movie musicals these days, and there certainly aren't enough Sondheim adaptations. On the other hand, we have a movie that seems strangely uncomfortable with the nature of its source material, sanding off edges and rushing through darker moments in the hopes of delivering something more palatable for general audiences. The stage version of Into the Woods is essentially a rebuttal to Disney fairy tales; the film version feels precariously close to actually being a Disney fairy tale.

Even if you're unfamiliar with Into the Woods, odds are you know many of its characters. At the beginning, we find several of them making wishes: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air) wishes to break free of her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski, The Good Wife) and attend the King's forthcoming festival. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wishes for some bread to bring to her ailing grandmother. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, Les Miserables) wishes for his beloved cow to give milk. These fairy tale icons are instantly familiar to us, but Into the Woods introduces another: a humble baker (James Cordin), who wishes to have a child with his wife (Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow).

A devious witch (Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice) knows how badly the baker and his wife desire a child, and determines to use that desire to her advantage. The witch places a curse on the couple, declaring that they will never have a child unless they bring her four items: a cow as white as snow, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a slipper as pure as gold. So begins a fairy tale-themed treasure hunt, leading the baker and his wife into the path of Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy, Forever), The Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), a pair of princes (Chris Pine, Star Trek and Billy Magnussen, The East) and many others.

The first half of Into the Woods plays as an entertaining remix of standard fairy tale tropes, with a host of characters crossing paths in a variety of unexpected ways. It's arguably the less compelling half of the stage version, but it easily represents the superior portion of the movie. Marshall's oversight of the technical elements often leaves something to be desired (the cinematography veers between point-and-shoot blandness and haphazard clumsiness, the choreography is functional at best and the editing occasionally becomes surprisingly sloppy), but the musically-charged storytelling is playfully engaging enough to overcome those problems. At its best, the movie transcends its director.

The performances vary in tone, but almost all of them work. Corden and Blunt form the emotional core of the movie, and both do an exceptional job of detailing the ever-present conflict between their fundamental goodness and their willingness to go too far in order to break the witch's curse. Streep's penchant for slightly overcooked theatricality fits comfortably with the role of the witch, and her surprisingly terrific vocal performance easily eclipses her ho-hum work in Mamma Mia! Pine is flat-out hilarious as Cinderella's prince, playing the part in the same way William Shatner might have once upon a time (“Agony,” his duet with Magnussen, is a giddy comic highlight). Sure, a couple of minor characters are a little too hammy (Baranski's stepmother and Depp's wolf in particular), but all of the central performances are effective.

Then a giant shows up, and the whole thing falls apart.

Into the Woods gets much darker in its second half, as the show goes beyond merely blending fairy tales and begins wrecking nearly every character's obligatory happy ending (sometimes quite literally, as the aforementioned giant begins destroying everything in its path). It's here that the movie starts to get squeamish, toning down the stage production's violence, sexual content and savagery until we're left with something that merely feels like a weirdly downbeat climax. Plus, the second half isn't actually a “half” at all, as Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine (who wrote the book for the stage version) rush through a lot of big plot developments (more than one crucial reprise gets snipped from the soundtrack). Moments that ought to feel emotionally devastating aren't given enough time to register, and moments that ought to be viscerally shocking are depicted with hesitant bloodlessness. Only the film's visual palette – which slowly transforms from a lush green to a deep, inky blue – seems willing to embrace darkness.

I understand why Disney felt a need to take this approach. They want to reach a wide audience; an audience that prefers their fairy tales (which were once shockingly savage and raw) through a Disney filter. As in many fairy tales, a bid for fortune has consequences. The darker elements of Into the Woods are so essential to the tale that their loss all but neuters the story's impact. Some of the show's more complex ideas – particularly those about the heartbreak of parenting and the danger of wishes – remain intact, and ensure that the movie isn't merely empty calories. Still, this is hardly the almost absurdly complex banquet of ideas (both musical and philosophical) offered by the source material. Perhaps the problem wouldn't be as pronounced if Marshall's direction had personality, purpose or polish.

Given that, it's tempting to say that Into the Woods probably shouldn't have been adapted at all. However, to say such a thing would be petty and narrow. Thanks to the existence of this movie, there are young viewers (and even some not-so-young viewers) discovering the joy of Stephen Sondheim's music for the first time. Some child out there is experiencing the first chapter of a journey that will eventually lead them through the wonders of Company, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music... and yes, the stage version of Into the Woods. In the spirit of the film version, permit me to quote one of the many memorable musical numbers through a more optimistic lens:

Careful before you say
“Listen to me”
Children will listen


Into the Woods

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 minutes
Release Year: 2014