I’ll admit up front that I’m not the audience for Rob Marshall’s “Into The Woods,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical (written by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). The musical has never been a genre that’s personally appealed to me. Particularly big, elaborate spectacle musicals like this one. With that out of the way, I can say that the movie isn’t a disaster. The casting is—for the most part-- solid across the board; the musical numbers are well staged and paced, moving the action along, with only a few that meander. That being said, the movie simply has too many elements— too may plot strands and characters to balance—causing the movie to become overstuffed and drag on. At two hours and six minutes it starts to feel like three. There is some great stuff in it but the movie doesn’t add up to a completely satisfying whole.
The story can be best described as Grimm Brothers’ stew with a few extra ingredients: the likes of Cinderella, (Anna Kendrick) Jack, (Daniel Huttlestone), Little Red Riding Hood, (Lilla Crawford) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) all interact with one another in the same far away land. In addition, there’s the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). A surprisingly underdressed Johnny Depp makes a brief appearance as The Big Bad Wolf—seriously, all he has is a mustache, a tail, and ears sticking out of a hat— and there’s not one but two blonde haired, charming Princes played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. One for Cinderella, another for Rapunzel.
The movie gets off to a great start, introducing the main characters and story in a music number that’s brisk and entertaining. Within ten or fifteen minutes you have a good indication of who these characters are and what they want to achieve. I won’t tell you what each recognizable character is after—if you don’t know that then you’re probably not going to see this movie--so I’ll skip right to The Baker and his wife. Due to a curse from The Witch (Meryl Streep) put on The Baker’s father long ago his wife can’t have children. However, The Witch gives them the chance to reverse the curse—telling them they must go off into the woods and collect magical items from the classic fairy tale figures. Again, I’m sure you can guess what those items are.
In the first half of the movie the basic Grimm fairy tales are reenacted with slight variations, as well as comedic interventions from The Baker and his wife. There’s a fair amount of tongue in cheek-ness running through this section that feels refreshing. Said tongue in cheek-ness can be primarily attributed to the main cast members. Each one brings charm and personality to their roles without going overboard or being bland. Blunt continues to show that she can have breezy chemistry with any male co-star placed in front of her; she and Corden are fantastic together as the only average characters in fairy tale land. And their encounters with the well-known Grimm figures make for some of the freshest moments in the movie. The Baker trying to yank Red Riding Hood’s cloak off is funny in an absurd, slightly creepy way. Kendrick brings her typical likability and spunkiness to Cinderella and I was surprised how much Pine’s intentionally campy charming Prince act worked. I didn’t think there was much ground left to cover in the handsome Prince character. Even the immortal Streep is able to generate loose comedic energy as the hideous, bitter witch. All of these actors have moments—separately and together—of comedic greatness.
Unfortunately, the cast can’t quite escape the snail’s pace and messy nature of the overarching narrative. Even with the slight alterations we still know how the Grimm stories are going to play out, eliminating a sense of surprise and excitement. And having to endure these multiple stories at the same time can turn into a chore. Even The Baker and wife saga eventually settles onto a predictable path. Stories in which characters have to go around and collect a bunch of objects have a tendency to do that, sadly. There’s also unnecessary redundancy; Cinderella runs away from three royal balls and there are two handsome Princes. Speaking of the second handsome Prince, the whole Rapunzel story could have been axed altogether. With the exception of one song, the stuff that happens to the longhaired captive is infinitely less interesting than everything else and is given the least amount of space in the narrative. Magnussen and Mauzy do their best but ultimately their characters feel like superfluous afterthoughts. Sorry guys, but we already have a Prince and Princess.
In the second half things take a different, darker turn. In one sense, this change is welcome because the movie is no longer beholden to the predictability of the Grimm stories, and like in the first half there are some great individual moments. However it also comes a little too late. In a stage setting this transition probably works just fine because there’s an intermission. On the screen however, there’s no intermission so it’s like having to watch two long movies back to back. Plus things are still messy and unfocused from a story standpoint. A villain in the form a giant—you know, from the beanstalk—is shoehorned into the action. A giant we’ve had no real contact with until this point, making the film’s climax feel somewhat unsubstantial.
On top of that, there really isn’t much of a change in tone. This most likely has to do with the PG rating and you can certainly feel a darker, more sinister mood lurking beneath this section just begging to come out. The only thing that gets darker is the screen. There are still plenty of jokes but there’s no real sense of danger, or thrill for that matter. When that CGI giant stomps around in the forest, knocking down trees threatening to kill people, I was left cold. In fact this can be said for most of the big, CGI moments throughout the picture: Jack climbing the beanstalk, The Witch getting sucked into quicksand of some sort towards the end, etc., are all empty thrills. For being a “spectacle” musical, “Into The Woods” is largely deficient in that area.
I realize that most of my issues with “Into the Woods” probably have more to do with the source material than the movie. But a movie has to be able to stand on its own and things that worked on stage may not necessarily work on screen. I also realize that I’m not the target audience for this, and those that love big musicals like this will find much to enjoy. As for me, while there are some great individual moments scattered throughout, they’re somewhat diluted by a lumbering and bloated story.