Into the Woods (2014)

INTO THE WOODSWalt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Rob Marshall. Produced by John de Luca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt. Screenplay by James Lapine, based upon the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Lapine. Photographed by Dion Beebe. Edited by Wyatt Smith. Production designed by Dennis Gassner. Costumes designed by Colleen Atwood. Starring Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Johnny Depp (The Wolf), Emily Blunt (The Baker’s Wife), Chris Pine (Prince Charming), Meryl Streep (The Witch), Lucy Punch (Lucinda), Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s Stepmother), James Corden (The Baker), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), Lilla Crawford (Red Riding Hood), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother)

The tagline for Into the Woods states: “Be careful what you wish for.” For fans of Stephen Sondheim and James Lupine’s revered 1986 Broadway musical who hoped for a movie, that advice is perhaps more poignant than it was intended to be. Rob Marshall’s new adaptation of Into the Woods roughly retains the source material, but it has also sanded its rough edges, flattened its sly, subversive qualities, and purged it of much wit. This is a glum and airless recitation of something that should be sneaky, alive and wicked. It’s been turned into a disjointed, machine-made live-action Disney production. What a shame.

The plot, famously, involves a gaggle of fairy tale characters colliding in riotous fashion. Servant girl Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) dreams of attending a ball with Prince Charming (Chris Pine). A farmer boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) trades his prized cow for some magic beans, which can grow beanstalks. A chirpy Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) ventures to grandmother’s house, pursued by a salacious Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp). A lovelorn Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) meets the man of her dreams, but fate conspires to pull them apart. And a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) strike a bargain with a witch (Meryl Streep) to become parents, as long as they jump through the right magical hoops.

What happens is, we can agree, a foregone conclusion. The musical’s fast pace practically depends upon the audience’s knowledge of each and every one of these stories, so, please, let’s not talk about spoilers. What differentiates Into the Woods is that these conflicts are solved early, resulting a second act of what happens next: tidy resolutions giving way to messy, all-too-real consequences, as the Brothers Grimm stand in the wings and harrumph at the rewrite. Happy endings, it seems, are not all they are cracked up to be.

The prime innovation of Sondheim and Lapine (besides popularizing overlapping fairy stories, which Shrek and Once Upon a Time later capitalized on) was that it had the temerity to extend these stories to their logical conclusions. What if the baker discovers he doesn’t want to be a father? How good a husband is someone as fickle and dim as Prince Charming? The show’s clever central conceit is to poke at the edges of these stories and overturn them to teach more sophisticated lessons—all done to top-notch music, of course. Sondheim, a sharp wit if there ever was one, is deservedly regarded as the supreme Broadway composer-lyricist of his era.

But the film itself guts much of the darker, juicier material from the show’s later passages, and soft-pedals what remains. This makes the show’s crucial theme—to stop looking for quick fixes and face the mess of life with real responsibility—muddied and occasionally incoherent. You just can’t do Into the Woods if you’re willing to neutralize the edgier stuff. It’s missing the very point to compromise in such a way. Many have speculated in the 25 years it took to make it to screen that Into the Woods couldn’t work as a movie. Maybe that’s true. It definitely doesn’t work as this movie.

It doesn’t help that Marshall and his longtime cinematographer, Dion Beebe, have chosen a palette that is gloomy and drab (and increasingly ugly as the film goes on). Marshall, a stage veteran, now has a decade of film work under his belt. He made the wonderful Chicago (2002), and has since specialized in movies that are dunderheaded (Nine, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean 4)…but at least they’re good looking. What exactly happened here? His camera fawns over the material, but his overly controlled style provides little energy, and if there is a surefire method to photograph the same tiny forest set in constantly new and exciting ways, he has not found it. His standard mode in the film’s final third is dingy, bleached blue filters and lazy compositions.

Marshall at least trusts his actors, and indeed the solid cast is…worth seeing? I guess. Every number is performed with brio and vim. Streep has fun in a role that could veer into overacting; she instead finds the right balance of ditzy and threatening. Depp is admirably restrained, sort of, for once, and Blunt has a lot of fun, while Pine ends up being the true ham (channeling William Shatner instead of Captain Kirk, it feels like). Everyone can sing at least well enough, but one of the more experienced voices, Kendrick, is possibly miscast; she seems too sensible to ever truly sell Cinderella’s essential wishy-washiness.

Everyone involved clearly felt they were signing up for a very nice production. But nice, as Red Riding Hood will tell us, is different than good, and by the time Into the Woods reaches a rather embarrassed and silly climax (one that effectively botches the show’s own finale), the waning sense of fun has completely drained away. If only it were gutsier. Or sharper, or more confident. Or something.

I wish.

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