With the recent financial success of Frozen and Les Miserables, and the critical success of last decade’s Chicago, the idea of big time movie musicals seems to slowly be making its way back into mainstream consciousness. Still feeling those swelling pockets from Frozen’s box office windfall, Disney has returned to the genre with a big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s broadway classic Into the Woods. It is fascinating that Disney would be the studio to make this film, considering its position as a twisted take on the fairy tales on the backs of which they established their dominance in the animated market, with its sex and violence and death and philandering princes and the like. Leading up to the release of the film, there was a question of how faithful to its source material it would end up being.
In practice, quite a bit is still in place. Opening just as the play does with the long form, labyrinthine title track that is essentially untouched, the film establishes its principals and their motivations for entering the eponymous woods. There’s the baker (James Corden, also serving as narrator) and his wife (Emily Blunt), sent on a scavenger hunt for some very specific items by a neighboring witch (Meryl Streep) in order to break a curse that leaves them childless. There’s Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), sent to a neighboring town’s market by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his beloved cow. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) needs to find a dress to wear to a ball held by the dashing prince (Chris Pine). Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off to visit her grandmother pursued by a wily wolf (Johnny Depp). As they all attempt to make their dreams come true, their paths converge among the trees.
Into the Woods is a dense musical, filled with a litany of recognizable characters in situations both new and familiar. Its songs are intricate and dotted with exposition. And for the most part, the first act is preserved nearly in its entirety. There are a few missing elements, but all of the characters are given time to establish themselves and their songs. It is a difficult task, as it breaks down into what is essentially a series of vignettes. This concept works better on stage than on screen, so there are transitions in the first hour that can feel choppy and unnatural. Marshall is working on a script from Lapine, the writer of the original Broadway book, so it certainly sounds and feels like it should, and the cast has the pipes to pull off their notoriously tricky songs. Even with that sense jerky momentum, the film does coalesce strongly around the baker and his wife’s quest for the four items, and gives it the time and space it needs in order to succeed.
There is a problem with this approach, though, in that Into the Woods is not a one-act play. Its second act is darker and more tonally complex, bringing to the fore themes of despair, regret, loneliness and familial responsibility that are designed to contrast the frivolity of its first half. In taking their time with the first act, the filmmakers have had to massively condense the second, giving many of these themes and the songs that illuminate them the short shrift, if not cutting them entirely. The choppiness of the first act is made even worse, and the swings in tone are brutally abrupt. Important events are left ambiguous, only to be casually explained scenes later, robbed of their impact. There is enough present for those with knowledge of the musical to follow and fill in the glossed over bits of character development, but the approach cannot be considered a good one for those coming into this fresh. As such, the film loses quite a bit of momentum when it counts; it’s a two hour film that likely should have been two and a half, though that is far too much for a studio to ask itself for a family film.
Additionally, the film never truly feels like it’s earning its due as a film. Marshall and his production designing crew have built sets that feel flat and stagnant, very much like the stage of a theater. Too often (especially in the second act) the actors are found standing in a line, reciting their dialogue or singing their songs on what clearly looks and feels like a soundstage with some mist on the floor and some trees in the background. Marshall has not done enough to make this film feel like it should be a film, and does not take advantage of the medium as it could be. The difficulty, really, is that Into the Woods never particularly gives itself a reason that it should have been made. It has the same issues that could be found in Marshall’s adaptation of Chicago, itself similarly overtly staged and not taking advantage of the strengths of cinema.
Deserving of the most credit is the casting department, who has done a fantastic job filling these roles to near perfection. Everyone, to a man and woman, hits the right notes for their characters, as well as having the singing chops to support the songs. This is a thoroughly charismatic group of actors and actresses, with the work of Corden, Blunt, Kendrick and Streep lighting up the screen. Depp is also quite good in his tiny role, fully taking advantage of its creepy predatory undertones. Chris Pine chews the scenery like none other, and his rendition of “Agony” alongside fellow prince Billy Magnussen is a highlight. It is a testament to the quality of the casting that Into the Woods works as well as it does; so many of its problems have the tendency to melt into the background when the musical opens itself up. Sure, the pacing is off, the sets are unimpressive and the final third is compressed beyond reason. But there is nothing quite like expertly performed renditions of “Stay with Me” or “No One is Alone” or “Last Midnight.” Perhaps, with a better director and a longer run time, Into the Woods could have better lived up to its Broadway progenitor. What has been presented, though, is not without its worth. Its first 80 minutes and casting are enough to overcome its flaws.