Rating: 6 out of 10
Meryl Streep as The Witch
James Corden as The Baker
Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife
Anna Kendrick as Cinderella
Daniel Huttlestone as Jack
Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood
Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince
Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince
Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel
Johnny Depp as The Wolf
Richard Glover as the Steward
Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother
Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s Stepmother
Tammy Blanchard as Florinda
Lucy Punch as Lucinda
Annette Crosbie as Little Red Riding Hood’s Grandmother
Joanna Riding as Cinderella’s Mother
Frances de la Tour as the Giant
Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s Father
Directed by Rob Marshall
We all know the classics of the Brothers Grimm – the industrious young man who trades a cow for magic beans and meets a giant, the young woman who crashes the royal ball in her magic slippers, the girl in her bright red, wolf-attracting shawl – but how well do we know them? That’s the question at the heart of “Into the Woods,” a film ultimately about ideas which never manage to be a better idea for a film than an actual film.
Imagining Grimm’s characters living together in the same world, trapped by the same event, musical legend Stephen Sondheim crafted a vehicle for imagining not just how these well-known characters would react to each other but how they would react outside of the bounds of their well-known lives. How real freedom would allow them to self-define themselves and in the process teach us something new about them. Unfortunately, Rob Marshall’s (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”) adaptation, while striking much of its own course from the original, leaves the heart of the characters and the show frozen in place, turning it into the well-worn repetition it originally rebelled from.
Part of that is built into the concept, drawing as it does on classic fairytale archetypes which would require greater investigation than is possible in such a large ensemble cast, beginning with the Witch (Streep) who has been cursed for giving away the magic beans which ended up in Jack’s (Huttlestone) hands, forcing her to enlist the aid of the unlucky Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) to break it.
From there the fairy tale characters arrive quickly and regularly, it’s tempting to say desperately, as the musical and especially the film seems to be trying to squash as many as possible into the brief time they have. Johnny Depp’s Wolf shows up just long enough to sing one song before his curtain is called permanently and Mackenzie Mauzy’s Rapunzel gets noticeably short shrift compared with the rest of the characters, largely to leave room to include as much of Cinderella (Kendrick) and the Baker’s as possible.
Which is one of the major problems inherited from the stage and left unchanged; in order to undo their own curse, the Baker family must steal the ingredients of some of the Grimm’s most potent fairy tales – Red Riding Hood’s shawl, Cinderella’s slipper, Jack’s cow – for the Witch’s arcane ritual, leaving them at the center of the plot most of the time.
But they’re the only ones whose prime conflict rests less on re-examining the core tenants of their story (unlike Cinderella’s continual questioning whether it’s a good idea for her to marry a prince she just met or not) and more on examining their unhappy marriage which doesn’t make for the grandest of musical numbers. Compared to Cinderella’s continual questioning of whether it’s a good idea for her to marry a prince she just met, said Prince’s self-admitted flightiness (in his own words he was ‘raised to be charming, not sincere’) or just about anything Red Riding Hood does, the Bakers come off as self-absorbed and unlikeable in the most uninteresting of ways.
Nor are the conceptual origins the only ones holding “Woods” back; the film can’t shake its stage roots either, leaving much which would have to happen off-stage off-screen as well despite the much larger canvas director Rob Marshall has access to. Instead, he puts his attention on the impressively-designed and staged musical numbers where the talented cast is finally able to shrug off the films’ fairy tale bonds and achieve something of the spirit everyone seems to want out of “Into the Woods.”
Streep, Kendrick and Crawford embody their characters within their songs—outpacing most of their colleagues—and Pine is one of the few who manages the same in prose (though his rare musical numbers also work). The songs aren’t as uniformly excellent as some other Sondheim productions at least in part due to the heavy irony that permeates “Woods” which doesn’t fit so well with classic fairy tale characters.
When given their freedom to fly, the sheer joy much of the cast puts into their pieces makes up for a lot of the mismatched pieces. Production designer Dennis Gassner has recreated a beautifully-realized version of their individual worlds as much as he has been allowed, but has unfortunately also been stuck spending most of his time in the “Woods.” The snippets of beanstalk or Charming castle we do get suggest the ability to perceive a larger world beyond the frame of the musical, but no desire to go there.
While the ritual itself succeeds at the halfway point, the characters themselves are not satisfied and seemingly never will be, a feeling the audience can immediately relate to. “Woods” worries less about the difficulties in living happily ever after and the difficulties of doing so, focusing on the lives of the characters around the edges of their stories instead of within them and letting them find out they are not prepared for it, but without focus beyond the only characters not worthy of it. As interesting an idea as it is, the sheer reach of “Woods’” grasp precludes the film from making the most of it.
The inability to expand beyond its source material (the way said source material expanded upon its own influences) results in a film which has little of its own identity, leaving behind an interesting but uneven experiment.