Directed by: Rob Marshall.
Written by: James Lapine based on musical by James Lapine (Music and Lyrics by Stephan Sondheim).
Starring: Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Daniel Huttlestone(Jack), James Corden (Baker), Emily Blunt (Baker's Wife), Christine Baranski (Stepmother), Tammy Blanchard (Florinda), Lucy Punch (Lucinda), Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mother), Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood), Meryl Streep (Witch), Simon Russell Beale (Baker's Father), Joanna Riding (Cinderella's Mother), Johnny Depp (Wolf), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel's Prince), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), Annette Crosbie (Granny), Chris Pine (Cinderella's Prince), Richard Glover (Steward), Frances de la Tour (Giant).
As often happens when I watch a film adaptation of a stage play or musical, while watching Into the Woods I wished I was watching a stage production instead of the movie. There are just some things that work on stage that don’t really translate to the screen very easily – and the work of Stephen Sondheim seems to be one of them. I liked Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd more than many did – but it still didn’t approach the level that I viewed of the same musical on stage. And from the first number in Into the Woods – the epic I Wish, which cuts together multiple different storylines, and probably close to a dozen characters singing. I could see how this could work on stage – but it doesn’t work nearly as well on screen, which takes a very literal approach to the cross cutting. This came up time and again throughout the film – numbers and moments that probably worked on stage. I cannot say for sure, as I never saw the play – but I now wish I did. I’m not saying that I thought that Into the Woods is a bad movie – it isn’t really, and for the most part the game cast makes much of the film fun to watch. It’s just that I wanted to like it more than I actually did.
The movie is combines elements of several different fairy tales. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go the Kings Festival – but of course her wicked stepmother and stepsisters won’t let her. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell their cow – and ends up with magic beans. Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) heads off to visit her grandmother, and is waylaid by the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp). And Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is locked in a tower. These different plot threads are tired together by three other characters. The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), live next door to a witch (Meryl Streep) – who tells them they will never have the baby they desire, because years ago she placed a curse of The Bakers bloodline. But she will reverse the curse if they can secure her the four ingredients she needs to reverse her own curse – one from each of the other storylines – within the next three days. So all of these characters head off into the woods.
The play was neatly divided into two acts – the first in which everything we know will happen in these storylines, happen, and everyone gets their happily ever after – and the second act, in which we find out that none of these happily ever afters are actually all that happy. I assume, like most plays, this would run about three hours on stage. In the movie, it is crammed into two hours – with the second act in particular being hacked to bits. It almost seems like after the happily ever afters, the film rushes through their aftermath in the final reel, and the result is a muddled, somewhat confusing mess of a film.
All the flaws of the movie aside, I must admit that I enjoyed much of the film. Even in the first act, this is a much darker film than most fairy tales are. There are sexual overtones to some of the relationships (much muted in the film version, but still there). And the film doesn’t shy away from the darkness and violence in those stories. The music, as one would expect from Sondheim, is brilliant – and for the most part, the cast is game, and throw themselves into their roles with gusto. Emily Blunt is the standout for me – her Bakers Wife is probably the most complex of the characters, and although some of her actions in the second act don’t make much sense, she handles them well – and she has a lovely voice. We already knew that Anna Kendrick can sing – and she makes a great Cinderella – a more complex one than we are used to as well. Meryl Streep goes wildly over the top as the Witch – as she seemingly does in everything these days, but no one does over the top quite as well as Streep – and she does nail the Witch’s big moments. Chris Pine and Bill Magnusson are in fine form as two charming princes – who add some levity to the proceedings in their duet in the first act (although their matching duet in the second act is cut, which undermines things a bit). Johnny Depp on the other hand is pretty much a complete embarrassment as the Wolf – once again playing his character as a complete weirdo – and not a dangerous character in the least. To make matters worse, he apparently also insisted on designing his own costume – and he looks like an idiot. The rest of the costume – by the legendary Colleen Atwood – are brilliant. Luckily, Depp is barely in the film, so he doesn’t derail things too bad.
Into the Woods made for an entertaining, if somewhat frustrating, night at the movies. If anything, it made me want to see the play on stage as soon as possible. What works in the movie, works well. What doesn’t, doesn’t work at all. I enjoyed much of the film – but I wanted to enjoy it more than I did. There is the material here to make a great movie – but they only got half way there.