Isabelle Bowen says that Into the Woods will give fans of movie musicals what they want, even though it lacks perfection
It has apparently taken 20 years to make Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award winning musical, into a film. Producers have tried to bring the play to the big screen on several occasions—the original slated cast included big 80s stars like Meg Ryan, Cher and Billy Crystal. So I start this review with some sympathy. It was clearly a very hard task to make, and so it may not be surprising if it is not completely stunning. This was rather the case. Into the Woods (director Rob Marshall) is enjoyable, but the sometimes disjointed plot and doubtable casting left it in the middle—a film you’ll agree to see with some friends, but not one you’ll remember forever.
I should probably begin by emphasising: This is a musical. If you hate musicals, you won’t be keen on this film. Fortunately the producers have stuck to Sondheim’s score. The main ‘Into the Woods’ theme is great, like an especially catchy nursery rhyme, while some of the Witch’s (Meryl Streep) arias are fantastic. There are even a few comedy specials, particularly Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s duet, as the two princes, entitled ‘Agony’, a heartfelt, hilariously over-dramatic rendition of privileged self-pity.
The overall structure is pretty simple and effective. Several fairytale characters cross paths in the middle of the dark woods as they go about their separate adventures. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is off to sell his cow; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is running from her prince; Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is going to visit her sick Granny. Into this mix come the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who, to lift a curse of infertility, attempt to collect four magic items. The plot is clever in bringing together all the different tales, while the gothic themes are not always entirely Disney-typical. The problems really occur in the second half. The end seems abrupt and unsatisfactory. You’re rather left feeling these fairytale characters have got fed up with moral lessons and happy endings and decided to cut it short and jump into some other adventure.
The cast are, however, notable. Meryl Streep is brilliant, and many of the other actors perform their roles very well. Even the kids are famous—you’ll know Huttlestone as the tragic young Gavroche from Les Misérables. However James Corden was a bit of an odd match—he always seems more of a comic character than a serious lead. Johnny Depp as the Big Bag Wolf was frankly apathetic casting. He played the character the same as his every other—a bit camp, a bit drunk—and his singing was far inferior to the rest of the cast.
Flaws and general feelings of ambivalence aside, the visual aspects of the film were rewarding. The contrast between the misty woods, suitably alterior for a symbolic Other Space where anything can happen, and the protagonists’ everyday, poverty-stricken lives in crumbling wooden haystacks was well-marked. I liked the film; I just probably won’t be in a rush to see it again (bar Chris Pine on YouTube). The main leads seemed to struggle with a general lack of direction—is this a comedy, a serious drama, a gothic horror? I feel—and I know musical fans may call this blasphemous—that if Disney had let its writers get a hold of the idea and Frozen it up, it may have come out a bit better. Then again, I challenge you not to have ‘Into the Woods to Grandmother’s House’ running in your head all day; it is still, despite its problems, a worthwhile addition to the movie-musical canon.