Fairy tales easily lend themselves to musicals. While it may seem odd in other stories for people to burst into song, fairy tales are already magical, so it may as well be part of the heightened reality. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine seized upon this conceit to craft their 1986 stage musical Into the Woods, which cleverly crossed famous fairy tales to create a witty, exciting, and vibrant tale filled with fast-paced, catchy tunes, and an insightful look at what happens after Happily Ever After. Director Rob Marshall has now brought the musical to the big screen, and while the music, story, and most of the performances leap off the screen, Marshall at times seems hesitant to follow the bombast. At times rousingly energetic and at others confusingly restrained, Into the Woods manages to be a fun and delightful trip that provides a new look at old stories.
Into the Woods blends together and tweaks a series of familiar fairy tales through the lens of The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) who want to have a child, but he’s been cursed with impotence by The Witch (Meryl Streep), who harbors a grudge against his deceased father. She’ll reverse the curse if they can find four items—”a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold”—and it just so happens that they can be tied to famous fairy tale characters Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick). Each of these characters has their own desires, and they all discover that they should heed the maxim, “Be careful what you wish for.”
While any good character has a motivation, musical fairy tales—namely, the animated Disney movies—lead with an “I Want” song. Sondheim and Lapine cleverly played off this because the lesson of fairy tales maybe shouldn’t be “It’s good to get what you want,” because what happens afterwards is far more interesting. Granted, this two-act structure leads to a problem with most musicals, which is the restart. The first act usually finds a resolution, the audience takes a 20-minute intermission, they come back and now it’s like starting back at zero in trying to find the energy again. Into the Woods the movie still has this bump, but the disruption isn’t too bad because there’s no intermission, and more importantly, the divide is woven into one of the themes of the story.
The musical has remained popular since its premiere, so from the perspective of songs and script, Into the Woods remains a powerhouse. Some minor cuts have been made to accommodate the two-hour runtime, but the loss is negligible, although the pacing can be choppy at times as the film awkward swings between storylines. Everything that’s good about the musical remains intact. It’s a matter of direction and casting where Marshall and his actors must make their adaptation stand apart.
I’m a huge fan of Marshall’s 2002 adaptation of Chicago. In addition to a smart script and excellent performances, every number has a personality, the personality perfectly ties in with the moment and character motivations, and they’re all wonderfully cinematic. His next musical, Nine, was hampered by weak songs, and he tried to do what he could with the poor material. Into the Woods seems like a perfect opportunity for the director to return to the heights of Chicago. Almost all of the songs are tremendous and the setting lends itself to lush visuals.
So it’s odd that Marshall has trouble putting on a show. He’s working with a big studio budget, but the woods feel small and insignificant. We’re always aware we’re on a soundstage, which isn’t necessarily problem since shooting on location and being “real” would be at odds with the tone and tenor of the plot. But the soundstage doesn’t have much in the way of eye-catching production design. Some of the sets look surprisingly cheap and the woods don’t feel claustrophobic as much as they’re redundant. The characters are lost because everything looks the same, not because the forest holds some strange power or is living up to its metaphorical relation to life’s uncertainty.
But Marshall’s hesitance becomes truly bizarre every time he shies away from a number that gives him the room to really explode off the screen. The movie is consistently colorful and energetic, but there are too many times when I wanted to shout at the screen, “Go bigger!” The song “Giants in the Sky” has the occasional shot of Jack climbing the beanstalk mixed with him jumping around on a tree. Whereas Chicago happily warped and reworked settings for its songs, Into the Woods is mostly grounded (insofar as a fairy tale can be grounded). There is no number in Into the Woods—a story with a witch, giants, and magic beans—as visually imaginative and exciting as “We Both Reached for the Gun,” from Chicago. Into the Woods isn’t bland, but it could easily have more verve, especially when its performers (minus one horribly miscast actor) are giving it their all.
Let’s get this out of the way: we’re all very tired of Johnny Depp. I assume he’s in this because he’s still considered a draw (the domestic box office for The Tourist, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger, and Transcendence to the contrary) and previously worked with Marshall on the abysmal Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Depp plays The Wolf, who mercifully only has one song, because I don’t know how much I could look at the actor prancing around in what looks like a cheap Halloween costume. It’s fine that the character is a distraction for Red Riding Hood (although Depp’s rendition of “Hello, Little Girl” veers between campy and pervy), but he shouldn’t be a distraction for the audience, and the faster we’re rid of him the better, especially when the rest of the cast is so phenomenal.
Anna Kendrick should be in every musical ever. We should find a way to bend the laws of space and time to make this happen. She’s a good actress and has turned in strong performances in other films, but when you let her sing, she’s untouchable. A new level of charisma shines through, and with her melodic voice she owns every single frame. She never vamps in her singing or shows off. Her singing is pure, powerful, and wondrous. Kendrick’s performance is emblematic of how the magic of the performances outstrips their setting.
She sets a high bar, and almost all of her co-stars come close to meeting it (again, with the exception of Depp). Assuming the film is a success, this will be a breakthrough performance for Corden. Marshall made a savvy move casting child actors for Jack and Red Riding Hood instead of young adults, and both young actors do good work. Blunt is spectacular as always. And of the three comical rich douchebag roles Pine has played this year (the others being in Stretch and Horrible Bosses 2), Cinderella’s Prince is his best.
The only one who can surpass Kendrick is the one who surpasses everyone in her profession: Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep once again plays Meryl Streep in that Meryl Streep can play anyone. She is one of the greatest film actresses of all-time, and she’s clearly having a blast playing The Witch, but she also provides one of the film’s more dramatic and tender moments with her performance of “Stay with Me”, a song that applies not only to the various characters’ relationships, but also to the film’s theme about parents and children. Some actresses could play to the big comedy, but few could turn The Witch into a real character.
Even if Marshall’s direction is somewhat of a disappointment, he at least cast wisely and trusted his actors to handle Sondheim’s rapid-fire music while maintaining the comic timing of the lyrics. It would have been nice if Marshall had matched the quality of the material and the talent he displayed with Chicago, but he’s still managed to tap into the delightful satire and surprising pathos presented by fairy tales. I wish Into the Woods was a bit more daring and unexpected, but not all wishes can be granted.