Into the Woods (2014) / Musical-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Billy Magnussen, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard
Small role: Johnny Depp
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: James Lapine (from his stage musical featuring songs by Stephen Sondheim)
Review published December 25, 2014
Rob Marshall (On Stranger Tides, Memoirs of a Geisha) directs this Disney rendition of the classic James Lapine/Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical of 1987, Into the Woods, which takes a handful of the oft-told Brothers Grimm fairy tales and mashes them up into one extravagant crossover. The crux of the story involves an ugly witch (Streep, The Giver) who strikes a bargain with a childless baker (Corden, Begin Again) and his resourceful wife (Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow), who are cursed by infertility, to obtain four items within three days -- Jack's cow, Cinderella's slipper, Little Red Riding Hood's cape, and Rapunzel's hair -- in exchange for being able to have a perfect child.
The highlight of this musical is, naturally, the beautifully orchestrated, Tony-winning Sondheim score, which delivers catchy repetitive refrains that pass from character to character, and situation to situation, and actually manages to not only push the story forward, but also accentuates the main themes of the film, among them the importance of imagination and storytelling, especially that life is full of ups and downs, and happiness doesn't continue on ever after.
The actors add their pleasant voices to the mix, and are generally well cast, though I think the breakthrough comes with Daniel Huttlestone's (Les Miserables) perfect turn as young Jack. The production values deliver quality special effects and costumes, though the choice to mute the color palette and keep nearly all of the action under the dim lighting of the woods may not be seen as appropriately cinematic for some viewers. It's also a bit draggy, despite the excising of several songs from the original production, as the film appears to be in no particular hurry to get where it needs to go, frequently taking its time to rest for a spell before traversing further toward an inevitable destination, followed by an extended epilogue that may have people antsy for a speedier wrap-up.
Rob Marshall is no stranger to musicals, having helmed an Oscar winner in Chicago, a box office flop in Nine, and cut his teeth in the business with a 1999 TV movie adaptation of Annie. Into the Woods falls somewhere in between his best and worst efforts, pushing forward good pacing and tempo, but the actual musical numbers feel curiously flat for such a lavish production. Perhaps less crooning and more choreography would have helped, and especially more imagination, as most of the numbers merely consist of characters just singing songs while standing in one general, dimly lit, obviously soundstaged location.
Though rated PG, the story does take a few darker turns, especially toward the end of the film, as the tale deals with possible infidelity, death, and, if one reads into the film more, sexuality in some complex ways, most that will likely go over the heads of the young audiences that will likely flock to this musical full of princes and witches. Then again, the same can be said about the fairy tales upon which the musical is based, so kudos to Disney for not completely sugarcoating over the more difficult elements of the story, especially as the traditional happy ending gives way to a final act that threatens to undo (very intentionally) the good will of what has come before.
While the songs are certainly rousing in and of themselves, alas, the Marshall adaptation is consistent in its quality but rarely soars due to the lack of genuine intrigue, revelatory momentum, or emotional resonance. We're never quite on edge to see what might happen to any of the characters, and even with lots of peril, including a couple of deaths (mostly shown off screen), the best we can do is to continue to admire the actors and songs from a distance, never quite becoming as enrapt in the going-on as one might think such a whimsical storyline should. Into the Woods charming enough to recommend, but falls short of enchanting enough to be a true spellbinder.
©2014 Vince Leo