'Into the Woods'
The exceedingly talented Stephen Sondheim has seen a few of his musicals get transformed into films, and the results have been mixed at best. It’s not easy to translate Sondheim to the screen, if only because his musicals are so specifically designed for the stage. There have been exceptions of course, provided that a filmmaker with just the right set of skills and a connection to the source material gets hold of the project. Richard Lester did an admirable job with ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ and Tim Burton did some excellent work on ‘Sweeney Todd’. Sondheim’s fairy tale mashup ‘Into the Woods’ seemed just right for a big Disney epic. Then Rob Marshall signed on and that was the end of that.
For those who have never seen the stage show, ‘Into the Woods’ is a big thumping musical mashup of a variety of classic fairy tales (mostly of the Grimm variety). Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) bounces through the woods to grandma’s house before being stopped by a disturbingly lecherous Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp). Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent to town by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell a cow, only to come back with magic beans. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) sneaks away to a big ball and is pursued by a handsome prince (Chris Pine). A couple of married bakers (Emily Blunt and James Corden) are tasked by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep) to find a collection of special magical props connected to the other stories. (That witch also has a daughter named Rapunzel.)
These tales crisscross and bounce off of each other in a creepy woods and all end up in a happily ever after place, until that comes crushing down. The moment that happens is one of the most awkward in the film. It feels like the ending, and it’s supposed to. On stage, the switcheroo is an act break allowing audiences the chance to take five for an intermission while expecting something new to follow. On screen, it merely signals to viewers that the film they thought was over is only just getting started. It’s a real sigh-inducing, butt-numbing moment.
Sondheim’s musical is a magical, thrilling, perverse and brilliant use of familiar fairy tales to explore the unpredictable, tragic, magic nature of life. Rob Marshall’s film, on the other hand, turns all that into a Fractured Fairy Tale goof, with cut rate Tim Burton visuals, stunt-casting, and narrative confusion. The decision to cast Jack and Red Riding Hood as kids might seem like a bright commercial choice on paper, but it hurts the young adults’ coming-of-age story and makes the perversity of the Big Bag Wolf segment deeply uncomfortable. (While Depp is perfectly fine in the role, his flashy costume is so embarrassingly off-base that it deserves a special achievement Razzie.)
The design of the film is meant to be forebodingly Gothic, but looks more like a high school production trying and failing to capture some Burton magic. The script chops the play down to two hours by necessity, and in the process turns a carefully structured tale into a disjointed mess. There’s no sense of pacing or tempo. It’s just a rush of songs and visual effects sequences desperately fighting for attention. The end result is far more confusing and exhausting than fun or resonant.
None of this is to say that ‘Into the Woods’ is a complete and utter failure. Most of Sondheim’s songs remain and they’ve been beautifully recorded. (Marshall might not be much of a cinematic storyteller, but the guy at least respects the music, and that’s often half the battle with these things.) Reduced to a show reel of the best songs, you might even consider the film a success. However, when they’re strung together in such a haphazard way, the songs fall apart.
Much of the stunt-casting is rather wonderful, especially Meryl Streep’s cranky witch, Anna Kendrick’s charming would-be princess (Kendrick can’t do anything less than charming), Emily Blunt’s goofy/sad baker’s wife (though the attempts to conceal the actress’ real-life pregnancy are quite distracting), Tracey Ullman’s silly and sardonic mother, and Chris Pine’s ironic Prince Charming.
In fits and starts, Disney’s ‘Into the Woods’ captures the magic of Sondheim’s musical. Unfortunately, it never manages to maintain any quality consistency. That may be as much a result of the stage show being simply too big, weird and theatrical to work on film, as it is a failure of this specific filmmaking team. It would have been nice to see a more gifted director try and maybe even succeed to bring ‘Into the Woods’ to the screen, but at least master-of-mediocrity Rob Marshall did the best job he could. That’s something. Not much, but something.