Nice is different than good
Into the Woods is directed by Rob Marshall and is based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim. The film stars Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lilla Crawford, and Johnny Depp.
Anyone who studies and/or participates in musical theater is going to eventually come across the name Stephen Sondheim, a man described by Frank Rich as, "now the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater." The composer and lyricist has a countless number of works and credits to his name, and we'd be here all day if we attempted to go through them all and analyze how so many of his works turned out to be successful. For myself, Sondheim's Broadway musical Into the Woods, was my first ever exposure to any of his works, as my high school decided to perform the show during my senior year after they were unable to obtain the rights to perform Fiddler on the Roof. I found the show to be a neat little musical mash-up of many of the Grimm Brothers' infamous fairy tales. When Disney came out back on Christmas 2014 with a film adaptation of the musical, I can't remember what went through my head when I saw the trailers for the first time. Was I excited and eager to see it, or did I just decide to wait until it came out on DVD and Blu-Ray because I thought the film wouldn't have the same charm when I first saw the musical on stage just a year before? Whatever I thought, it doesn't matter now. The fact of the matter is that I did not go see the film when it was in theaters and even forgot about its existence for a short while, until I began searching out select films to watch and review this month of March that I am dedicating to musicals, and this one just happened to spring up.
I think it's worth mentioning that musicals are not exactly my cup of tea. I don't know, maybe it's the fact that the vast majority of musicals have normal, spoken dialogue intertwined with songs and dances, and none of the characters take this to be weird and out of place, because, who randomly bursts out into prolonged song and dance in real life? This is just something that I've never been able to fully wrap my head around, most likely because I don't find musicals as pragmatic as other kinds of plays and films. But that's not to say that I straight-up despise all musicals. There are plenty of musicals I've seen both on a theater stage and in film, and I've found myself to be engaged. But at the same time, I have also seen a healthy share of bad stage and film musicals.
Rob Marshall's Into the Woods, however, remains something of a puzzle to me. As soon as the end credits began, I couldn't tell if the 120 some minutes of film that I had just watched was either straight-up good or undeniably bad. After taking some more time to think it over, I'm confident that I've reached the conclusion that the film is somewhat above average. Above average, though, is not the way I wanted to feel about this movie at all, primarily because of the kind of star power that's present in the cast, as well as the fact that several of the songs are so so lovely.
The plot is a mix up of the characters from "Little Red Riding Hood", "Cinderella", "Jack and the Beanstalk", and "Rapunzel". A Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) are unable to have a child, having been cursed by a Witch (Meryl Streep) who had her garden robbed by the Baker's father. The Baker's father also stole some beans, resulting in the Witch being cursed with ugliness. The Witch offers to lift the curse, but only if the Baker and his Wife are able to obtain four ingredients that the Witch can use for a magic potion: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. The Witch gives the couple three days time to obtain the items, or else they will forever be cursed to never bear children. The Baker and his wife then set out on their quest to obtain the four items, which brings them into contact with the likes of Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack, and Rapunzel, all who possess at least one of the items that the Witch needs.
Into the Woods treats its characters like they're in a bizarre game of speed dating; everyone is running into each other and coming and going like there's no tomorrow. And while The Baker and his Wife are the only two to have a true purpose for needing to meet every other fairy tale character, the movie keeps criss crossing nearly all of the characters and trying so hard to match them all together that you'd wish they'd all just be able to meet in one spot and resolve all their issues. Though I do admit, the characters being constantly on the run is where the movie finds a lot of its energy, presenting a kind of hyper attitude necessary for a musical boasting this many different and recognizable characters to succeed.
- Into the Woods is mostly successful where it needs to be, and that of course is with its music and singing. To match the film's hyperactivity, the orchestration constantly runs at a high fever, always being loud and clear, especially when someone isn't singing. When someone is singing, the massive talent truly shows itself, with the likes of Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, and Johnny Depp all showing off their vocal ranges that perfectly complement Sondheim's lyrics. With this much all-star talent on display, the musical parts just have to succeed.
- Things are all well and good for Into the Woods, until right around its final 30-45 minutes, where everything turns overly grim and overly confusing way too fast. This is also the point in the movie where it decides it wants to stop being hyper and start being even darker and more serious than before. This may sound strange, because several of the musical's darker elements were adjusted for the film, so that Disney could safely advertise the film as family-friendly. The problem with this though, is that many characters either die or disappear in fashions that pack hardly any emotional heft (one character dies simply because they were pushed into a fallen tree), and those who remain by the end all decide to come together because, um, because they feel the trouble they all just went through means they all should be together? It's not really well explained, and the movie as a whole isn't dramatically satisfying enough so as to earn any of your tears or even your sympathy. But at least the songs are still lovely.
I did not dislike Into the Woods by any means, but I can't exactly say that I loved it either. It works best in the department that it needs to work best: the music and singing, which manages to stay afloat throughout, even when the film falls flat with its highly problematic third act. As inconceivable as it sounds, this is the kind of work that was weakened by Disney's magical touch, instead of enhanced by it. And with so many recognizable stars to be noticed, Into the Woods can't help but feel like a mild disappointment.
Recommend? If you've seen the musical on stage and loved it, I'd give the film a watch.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: