Release Date: December 25, 2014
Director: Rob Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG
Into the Woods can’t see the dark forest for the trees. The film gets so caught up in the minutiae of its clever constructs and unique spins on classic Brothers Grimm tales that the fun eventually fizzles and themes grow elusive and ineffectual.
Being over-the-top and simultaneously aware of its own ridiculousness isn’t enough to sustain the buzz from an ambitious opening musical number and a game cast that’s up for a rollicking time. When things turn solemn and the “…happily ever after” myth is shattered, it feels more like tacking on than subversion. The protracted third act makes us long for a more traditional ending, if only because it means the movie would be a half hour shorter, not necessarily because we care about the grim fates of some of the characters.
Passionate fans of the Stephen Sondheim Broadway show will certainly be able to pick out some things – or at least a musical interlude or two – to like in the long-awaited movie version, while the uninitiated are likely to find it lacking some magic.
The story is mashup of fairytales we all know: Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone as Jack), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick). These characters are familiar, though remixed here to weave into the story of The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). The couple is told that their inability to have a child is due to a curse placed by the Witch (Meryl Streep) next door. The bizarre sorceress promises to lift the spell if four items are delivered to her: a blood-red cape, milky white cow, corn-yellow hair, and a slipper pure as gold. This takes The Butcher and his wife into to woods, where they encounter the traditional protagonists for merriment and, eventually, misery.
Director Rob Marshall is no stranger to movie musicals. He helmed Chicago, which won the Best Picture Oscar, and also Nine, which earned mostly derision. Into the Woods doesn’t inspire such extreme reactions because of its monotony. Songs come fast and furious, but none match the energy of the act one prologue that wistfully introduces us to the large cast and the world they inhabit.
Streep manages to be simultaneously evil and endearing as the Witch, though her continual physical manifestations into the story grow tiresome. Emily Blunt also stands out, playing up both the quirks in the fantasy and the immediacy of her character’s arc. Chris Pine’s broad and comically vacant Prince Charming is entertaining in his short bursts of screen time. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, even the ever-likable, musical theater vet Kendrick is marginalized with her Cinderella remaining drab throughout. Johnny Depp’s role as the Wolf is tiny, and for once his patented hat-wearing, expressive weirdo (thankfully) isn’t a distraction.
This group of supremely talented actors fails to sustain the romp because their varied threads congeal by force rather than organic theatrics. It’s not their fault and speaks to the larger issues of this stage-to-screen adaptation, which go beyond the slashing done to Sondheim’s dark Act II to make it more Disney-friendly. The film embraces the fantastic, but also feels straightforward and literal instead of literary, draining much of the vivacity from the source material.