Disney's vision of the classic Sondhiem musical adds a hint of Hollywood but not much else.
Fairytales have always been a good place to play around for a writer. You're dealing with broad themes and archetypes, with narrative structures that are so well known that any skew from the accepted story adds a frisson of danger, of something experimental.
So it is with Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods, a musical that mashes up many of the old stories to give them a new resonance. It was revolutionary when it was first released back in 1986. Since then we've seen a ton of different contemporary reimaginings of old tales, as everyone from Snow White to Jack The Giant Killer gets the high budget once-over. The movie version of Into The Woods enters a crowded market with Kenneth Branagh's version of Cinderella joining the spring schedules.
So what does Rob Marshall's film have to offer? The notion of Meryl Streep as a singing witch might tickle the synapses. The notion of James Corden as a singing baker, maybe less so. There's been furore in the Broadway fanboy circle about Disney's insistance on a tone-down of some of Sondheim's bleaker moments. But on the whole, who wouldn't want to see a decent movie adaptation of an iconic piece of theatre?
Well, see, there's the thing. The two disciplines are surprisingly tough to transfer successfully from stage to screen and vicky verka. There have been many clunky, over-referential versions of stage plays that don't or daren't take risks with the core material. Into The Woods, with its big budget and starry cast, falls head-first into this trap. Some big moments in the movie are very much theatrical rather than cinematic conceits–take the sequence inside Johnny Depp's Wolf, all walls of billowing chiffon, or the barely-there giantess, surely a major threat who is simply hardly shown. The Woods of the title are an obvious soundstage from which there's little escape.
Marshall's timidity gives Into The Woods a strangely lumpen, uneven air. There's an awful lot of tell-not-show. We never see Jack in the land of giants, or Cinderella at the ball–Corden's voiceover does all the heavy lifting. The action moves in jarring segues that shove the story along rather than letting it move smoothly. We plod along for a while, then the brakes come off and we're five miles down the road, feeling that we've missed a couple of turnings.
The stage-bound feel extends, sadly, to the performances. The cast play it broad, for the most part, teeth and tits, pushing the performance out to the back rows. Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt manage to put a little subtlety into their parts, but they're largely shouted down by Meryl Streep, blaring full-gas through a thick layer of make-up (practical or digital) or Chris Pine going the full Shatner as the Prince (although his admission of his nature to Cinders following infidelity is one of the smarter moments: “I was bred to be charming, not sincere.” A reminder that we're dealing with archetypes here. Placeholders, with a very limited set of character tropes. You could very easily roll dice to come up with something of equal complexity).
However, it would be churlish of me to hate on Into The Woods for being something that it clearly isn't. The great songs are delivered with conviction, and I was never less than entertained. Ultimately, though, it's hard to see the point of the film as anything other than a money-spinner, an attempt to keep the cross-pollination between film and theatre (and the flow of money thereof) galloping along. There have always been movie adaptations of great stage musicals, and Into The Woods is just another one of them. Nothing special.