Be careful what you wish for. It turns out that Into The Woods‘ main message is good advice for those who wanted to see the Broadway hit adapted to the big screen.
Despite its multiple interweaving fairy tales and success on the Great White Way, Rob Marshall’s Into The Woods is completely lacking in magic. Instead, it is a passable, “not terrible” fantasy flick that never quite soars or impresses.
But the talent of director Rob Marshall and the cast is undeniable, and this saves the movie from being a forgettable Broadway adaptation just passing through the cinemas.
MINI-SPOILER MARK: Minor plot details discussed beyond this point. No major plot spoiler revealed.
Disclaimer: The reviewer has not seen the original onstage production of ‘Into The Woods’
It is a world – or one particular woodland, to be specific – where the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales all cross paths. Literally. A Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) desperately want a child, but have been unable to conceive due to a curse placed on the Baker’s family by their next door neighbour, the Witch (Meryl Streep). The curse will be lifted if the Baker and his Wife follow the Witch’s instructions to retrieve a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. Obviously, we know which other fairy tales come in.
The couple thus set out to find these items, equipped with only six magic beans that the Baker’s father had stolen from the Witch years ago (and led to the curse being placed). Through a series of interactions, transactions and thefts, they meet the Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, who eventually gets a Beanstalk), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). But as wishes are granted, the characters learn the consequences of their actions and must rectify the resulting mess.
Let’s be honest. When it comes to the soundtrack, Into The Woods is not exactly a classic. Indeed, it was a Broadway success and Tony Award winner, but its musical numbers lack the memorability of timeless scores like The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Wicked, Les Miserables, Grease, or even Chicago, which Marshall adapted into a Best Picture Oscar winner. Now, these are scores that even the musical uninitiated are familiar with.
Sure, some of Into The Woods’ songs are catchy, but the musical numbers are simply not captivating enough to stay with you for days after leaving the cinema, and this is telling for the memorability of the movie. The only exception would be “Agony”, which we remember not for the melody but for the commendable, overly-dramatic theatrics of the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) who perform it. Yet, it is hard to imagine how Into The Woods beat The Phantom of the Opera to the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 1988. But this is just my opinion; clearly, some people seem to enjoy the soundtrack.
The plot of Into The Woods is creative and a well-woven patchwork of multiple Grimm Brothers fairy tales. It does well until the final segment, when it descends into an unnecessarily long cliché from which the audience (excluding the musical’s fans) begs for release. If it had ended half an hour earlier, it would have sacrificed the movie’s more serious tone and depth, but it would have been less of a drag. And that might not have been such a bad thing.
But Into The Woods does have many redeeming qualities, and this is found in its visibly talented director and cast, particularly (and unsurprisingly) Meryl Streep, who earns yet another Academy Award nomination for her impressive performance as The Witch.
Rob Marshall has always had talent for transferring great stage choreography and lighting into film, and making it fit. We saw it in Chicago, and we see it again in Into The Woods. The final shot of the Wolf (Johnny Depp) in “Hello, Little Girl” and the Witch’s exit are a clear homage to the live theatre experience. As with the true nature of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, Into The Woods has plenty of dark themes that might be disturbing to children. But Marshall creatively uses props, costumes and editing to only suggest grotesqueness.
As the posters and trailers have indicated, Into The Woods‘ most marketable element is its very star-studded cast, and they have lived up to their A-list names in their performances. The cast has great comedic timing, and the humour is well-placed, coming naturally at the right moments and never disrupting any potentially darker moments. Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are just as funny as they are talented singers. Chris Pine strikes the right balance for his overly-dramatic prince, making his theatrics hilarious rather than annoying.
And then there’s Meryl Streep, who can deliver a forceful wave of emotion into her viewers with just one look or tone of her voice. She is simultaneously frightening, humourous and glamourous at the right moments. Her performance of “Stay With Me” is both vocally and emotionally powerful. Along with director Rob Marshall, Streep is Into The Woods‘ most prized asset.
But one thing is certain as the credits start rolling after the movie feels like it has overstayed its welcome: whatever magic helped Into The Woods to onstage success has clearly vanished on the big screen. The movie will still appeal to fans of the musical, of any of the cast members and of the director.
And unless you belong to these select group of viewers, you gain nothing from watching Into The Woods.
Rating: 3.0/5 (TALK-o-meter: “Okay, I guess? Could be better.”)