If you dare go “Into the Woods”, there’s a lot you will find: A star-studded ensemble cast as fairy tale characters who have been raised to rhyme. A story entangled in intrigue, hope, joy and sadness. And more than 20 high-powered, often in-your-face, full throttle, Stephen Sondheim musical productions. Unfortunately, only a handful truly work. The rest are either sing-songy conversations or dragged-out, bland soliloquies.
Many of the problems with “Into the Woods” cannot be blamed on the film, but rather the Broadway musical it’s based on. However, director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”), writer James Lapine and composer Sondheim should have realized that what worked on the stage wasn’t an exact fit for the big screen. The elimination of a half dozen or so tunes would have given this film version (and the audience) a chance to breathe – and the members of the all-star cast a chance to act.
Meryl Streep receives top billing as The Witch. She is the story’s pivotal character, and Streep is able to belt-out a trio of show-stopping songs, plus deliver several acting scenes from a multi-layered character. She gives the strongest performance in the film and is deserving of awards consideration (she’s being put up for Best Supporting Actress). The Witch wasn’t always mean and ugly – a spell cast upon her once upon a time turned her that way. Now she wants to “reverse the curse”, and the one she placed on The Baker (“Begin Again”‘s James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), which is preventing them from having a child.
The Baker and his wife must go “into the woods” and collect four items: a red cape (Little Red Riding must give up the Hood), a golden slipper (Cinderella must slip it off), a white horse (young Jack must trade it for some magic beans), and golden hair (Rapunzel must do more than just let it down), and bring them to The Witch. All of this has to happen in three days time, before the appearance of the rare Blue Moon.
And this is only half of it. Once the tasks have been completed, and you’re thinking, like Taylor Swift, that we’re finally “Out of the Woods”, the relationship subplots take over and the fairy tales get even more fractured. Cinderella (played by an underused Anna Kendrick) isn’t sure whether being a Prince’s Bride is what she’s always wanted (ever) after all.
The Prince (Chris Pine) makes some bold decisions of his own. He is by far the wackiest character in the cast. Pine plays everything for laughs, mocking the story with his over-the-top, goofy performance. His musical number “Agony”, a duet with “The Other Prince” who’s in love with Rapunzel, is the most entertaining song in “Into the Woods”, though it doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the film. And that tone is pretty dark. There’s suffering and death throughout “Into the Woods”, much of it involving the children.
And then…there’s Johnny Depp. Once again, with the help of hair, makeup and special effects, Depp transforms himself into a quirky character – putting his unique spin on The Big, Bad Wolf. Too bad it’s a brief appearance: Depp only gets one song and is on screen for less than five minutes. I wish Marshall would have expanded Depp’s part. He would’ve made a great villain – and given the script some much needed bite.
Yes, we can tell that all of the actors are talented singers. Kendrick, a theater lover her entire life, has an impressive, Broadway-calibre voice. And Streep’s “Stay with Me” and “The Last Midnight” prove she’s come a long way, vocally, since her “Winner Takes It All” in 2008’s “Mamma Mia!”. But after listening to Blunt, Corden, Tracey Ullman and the rest of the company sing about what they’ve already done or are about to do for nearly two hours (accompanied by a trumpet-blaring score) I’d had enough.
The strength of “Into the Woods” is its look, highlighted by the costume design of veteran Colleen Atwood, who’s likely to snag plenty of honors for her work. Maybe, with some trimming of it’s branches – fewer songs and relationship complications – this could have been deserving of a Best
Picture Oscar nomination, something a live-action film from Disney
hasn’t received since “Mary Poppins” 50 years ago. Instead, Marshall tries far too hard to make us fall in love with everyone and everything. The broad appeal of this Broadway hit just doesn’t cut it on screen.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Into the Woods” gets a C+.