Review: Into The Woods

Opens December 25

INTO THE WOODS directed by Rob Marshall, written by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, with Emily Blunt, James Corden, Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick. A Disney release. 125 minutes. Opens December 25. Rating: NN

Full disclosure: I love Stephen Sondheim‘s Into The Woods, a witty and profound musical mashup of fairy tales. I’ve seen many productions, know the score well and really wanted Rob Marshall‘s adaptation to succeed and gain a broad audience. Alas, it’s just not a good movie.

Sondheim can write stand-alone songs, but his musicals are constructed for the theatre. His clever wordplay, his complex rhythms and harmonies, the way his stories intersect and unfold – none of these things translates easily to film. After the press screening, a fellow critic confessed he had no idea what was happening in the first 30 minutes. Not a good sign for a film aimed at an all-ages crowd.

The stage show isn’t especially difficult. James Lapine‘s book takes plots from Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack And The Beanstalk, throws in a couple of princes and adds a new tale involving a witch’s curse on a childless baker and his wife. After the first act’s tidy resolution, it goes on to explore, in postmodern fashion, what happens when people’s wishes come true. Hint: there is no happily ever after.

The way these characters interact in the live show – with lights and staging signalling shifts in location and time – can be thrilling and ultimately moving. There’s poignant material here about parents and children, loss, commitment and forgiveness.

In Marshall’s film, however, the plot seems convoluted and the language laboured. Without an intermission, the tonal shift in the second half is abrupt and jarring.

All this wouldn’t be so bad if the film at least looked decent. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd wasn’t a great movie, but it had those skewed-perspective German expressionist sets and heightened Grand Guignol style.

Marshall and his design team give us monotonous grey castles and cottage interiors, and a forest that looks as magical as something in a rundown amusement park. The appearance of a giant is about as convincing as stop-motion animation from the 1960s.

At least Marshall’s hired some talented actors. As the Baker’s Wife, who longs for a child, Emily Blunt delivers the best performance, lending warmth and spontaneity to every line. Notice the maternal look she gives Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, Broadway’s most recent Annie) when the girl enters her shop.

It’s a shame she outclasses her Baker, James Corden, who nails the comic lines but lacks gravitas for the serious moments.

Anna Kendrick has some fun with her Cinderella, who gradually discovers her Prince Charming (Chris Pine) is a little shallow. And Pine and Billy Magnussen, as Rapunzel’s Prince, are hilarious in the film’s best scene, a woe-is-me parody number about their difficult love lives.

Tracey Ullman and Daniel Huttlestone make a delightful team as Jack and his harried mom, and Johnny Depp lends a lascivious carnality to his Wolf, a role usually played onstage by the actor playing one of the princes.

And as the Witch, Meryl Streep cackles and shrieks her dialogue and then hams it up shamelessly in her songs.

If the film does well, maybe it will encourage more productions of the musical, where you can see the stuff that’s been cut, including the heartbreaking philosophical duet No More. 

I can understand why it was left out. It’s a powerful scene, but in Marshall’s hands it would have slowed things down even further. The less time spent in his woods the better.

Oscar buzz

Meryl Streep only has to show up in a film to get recognized by the Academy. While her performance as the Witch is terribly hammy, she does get to sing a couple of numbers, including a rap song about vegetables, which increases her chances for supporting actress recognition. Two original songs were apparently going to be added to Sondheim’s musical, but they didn’t make the final cut, so you can rule out a song nom. If the film does well at the box office, there’s an outside chance it could score a best picture nod.

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