Overview: A childless baker and his wife must acquire specific objects from the woods in order for the witch to break the spell upon them. Disney; 2014; Rated PG; 124 minutes.
For the Tolerance of the Hollywood Musical Adaptation: Into the Woods is a mostly enjoyable film adaptation of a good musical. I need to get that out, because I’m sure that thought will be lost in everything I’m about to say. Adapted from the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), Into the Woods will basically draw in two audiences: the Sondheim fanatics and the casual holiday movie-goers. Neither will leave entirely satisfied.
It’s no secret that sitting through musicals feels pretty enhanced-interrogation-tactic-y to me. But if you fear walking into a musical and walking out with a song bouncing around in your head for a month, fear not; every single song is sufficiently tolerable but immediately forgettable. (A bonus in my book.) Songs sing us the plot rather than punctuate the story–typical of Sondheim. The non-stop, over-the-top pageantry that plagues most every musical runs rampant in the first act. Vast expanses of magical woods appear in stage-like proportions, and each lost character seems to be within arm’s reach of whomever or whatever he’s seeking at all times – a problem acceptable only on stage. Despite some pacing issues, the first act still manages to be funny and engaging.
To Keep it PG or Not to Keep it PG: Into the Woods intertwines the fairytales of Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone, Les Misérables), Little Red Riding Hood (Broadway actress Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), all connected by the curse on the Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who seek the Witch (Meryl Streep) to undo the spell. It’s a modern Hollywood rarity: a musical not plagued by singers who can’t act or actors who can’t sing. Emily Blunt is perfection. James Corden is solid. Meryl Streep does what Meryl Streep does. Chris Pine is a surprising scene stealer, and his “Agony” duet makes the whole film worth the watch. Anna Kendrick is great but miscast as Cinderella. Surprising to no one, Into the Woods is Disney-fied, and it’s clear keeping a PG rating came at the cost of some of the edgier, grittier parts of the story. Although the more subversive aspects of the original storyline between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (Johnny Depp) were removed, a quasi-sexual interlude between a tween girl and a middle aged Depp is left intact just enough to be nauseating. Kendrick should have played Red Riding Hood, and Depp should have returned to whatever Tim Burton film he wandered in from. Into the Woods softens to pull in an audience the stage play never originally sought.
The Final Act: Into the Woods ends – completely and utterly ends – and then carries on for another…well, insufferably long time. Why, why, why did it continue? (I know it’s in the play. I know, I know, the play.) The worst part is, I imagine that the part I’d gladly amputate from the movie is the best part of the stage musical. Marshall fumbles the transition, making it abrupt, alarming, and entirely confusing. As an advocate for the unhappily ever after endings, a champion of the realistic spin on fairy tales, and eager viewer of the otherwise dreary misery of the human condition, this glimpse into the “What happens after the happily ever after?” left me wishing I’d left after the first act. While I have no qualms about the tone and message, the second act was like flicking the light switch of indifference. The characters for whom we’ve spent an hour rooting are suddenly reduced to little more than plot devices, making uncharacteristically odd choices, with no explanation. Not everyone is going to make it out of the woods alive, and you’re not going to care.
The Fix: Into the Woods feels like the quintessential bad relationship: it starts out fun, abruptly becomes unhappy and serious, and ends long after it should have. An actual audience intermission with a two drink minimum probably would have solved all of the problems I had with this film. Make that three drinks.