Rob Marshall's Disney adaptation of Steven Sondheim's Into The Woods succeeds in so many things, but fails in the most important part: the heart.
Full disclosure: I'm a massive fan of the original Broadway musical. So I can only speak from that experience alone. So let's get to it.
For those of you unaware, Into The Woods criss-crosses a myriad of fairy tale characters in and out of each other's lives while each one pursues their own personal story. It's primarily told through the eyes of a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who want to have a child but have been cursed to be barren forever by a neighboring Witch (Meryl Streep). But when the Witch offers to reverse the curse in exchange for certain objects, the married duo sets off into the woods and directly into the lives of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from from beanstalk stories, among others.
Truly, the best thing about the Into The Woods movie musical is that it sounds like a musical. Hot off the Les Miserables on-set live-recording experiment, it's refreshing to have something that sounds a bit more grand and polished. And the sound hits you immediately, starting in the Prologue, with each member of the very large ensemble skipping off into the much hyped-about woods. In that particular moment, the film gives the audience a god's eye view of each character singing, tracking their way towards their impending destiny. It gave me chills. Somehow, this track has mastered the very complicated task of recreating the feeling of an entire company belting their souls directly into your face. It was large and bold, and it almost felt like live theater. Alas, while the sound was successful, it couldn't carry this picture alone, and the second half of the film struggled under curious cuts that were presumably made to make a very adult stage musical more palatable for the family-friendly moviegoing public. But more on that later.
Then there's the cast, the list of talent is absolutely bonkers. Into The Woods nailed (just about) every member of this on-screen company. Emily Blunt was an inspired choice for the grounded, non-fairy tale member, the Baker's Wife. Blunt anchored the cast of glittering Disney characters with grim reality. Plus, she has great chemistry with her movie husband, James Corden. Anna Kendrick nails the exceedingly complicated Sondheim song, "On The Steps of the Palace."
Tracy Ullman revived Jack's mother with a lot of fresh and family-friendly humor. Broadway veteran Christine Baranski shines as the Evil Stepmother. (It's almost a shame she didn't get more time.) And Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen almost walk away with the entire movie in their duet "Agony." Crooning at the top of a waterfall, the two fairy tale princes try to outdo one another's lovesick heartbreak and it's great. Just great. Each one of these fantastic characters works even better when they're playing off one another. It gels; it feels like a legit ensemble and that's, well, magical.
But really, this is Streep's show. Streep soars as the manic, rapping Witch. On-stage Into The Woods Broadway legend Bernadette Peters she's not, but somewhere in the twitching and flinching and pawing of the locks of the precious Rapunzel, Streep became a pretty sensational Hollywood vision of this character.
That being said, you know where I stand on the whole Zuit Suit Riot Big Bad Wolf debacle. Watching the live-action Tex Avery cartoon shtick was exhausting. And turns the "Hello Little Girl" song from something uncomfortably scandalous (when being sung to the 16-year-old Danielle Ferland on stage) to something down right disgusting (when being crooned to the 13 or 14-year-old Lilla Crawford).
The sound, ensemble, and first act alone were almost enough to give Into The Woods a big round of applause. It's great to see a movie musical unafraid to be a musical. To watch characters spring into song without the self conscious need to over-establish each overture. But as the plot moves forward, it buckles under the cuts that had to be made so children wouldn't cry.
Streep's Witch builds and builds and builds, only to be whisked away to nothingness. The Baker learns his lessons too easily and Jack and Red don't really seem (or need) to grow up at all. It's an absolute shame; the touchstone themes of the show and the often uncomfortable lessons about becoming an adult and aging are swept away without much of an afterthought.
Instead of stewing in the issues from the original play, the whole premise is boiled down to "be careful what you wish for" or "don't wish." In truth, that's a big part of the Sondheim original, but it's not that simple. There are character struggling with their own abandonment issues, realizing that they've destroyed the very lives they aimed to protect, and deep soul searching that goes beyond Cinderella "choosing" herself. Sure, that Cinderella line is in there, but it stands alone and cold after all the other character dilemmas are stripped away. The hard stuff was treated like emotional chaff, and the play is so much more than that.
This is never more apparent than when the cast approaches the climax and sings, "No One Is Alone," which is sung to reassure Red and Jack that everything is going to be alright. The song is absolutely beautiful. And I found myself emotionally engaging in the swells of the music, but not in the feelings that accompanied it. I felt nothing for these kids and their strife. Perhaps this is because you can't fit a musical of this magnitude in a two-hour movie. Or maybe we shouldn't have Disney making films about sex, grief, growing old, and becoming obsolete.
That's not to say I didn't walk out pretty happy with the end result. It may be my, "this could have been so much worse" mentality going in (and the early pictures of Johnny Depp did not help that mindset). Into The Woods is worth seeing on the big screen simply for the astounding cast and wonderful musical soundtrack. Even at its worst, you cannot rip your eyes away from Streep. So perhaps non-Broadway fans may be a little more patient with this adaptation, though I can't help but feel the Witch's final scene will leave the masses mostly confused.
Overall, the film starts out grand but gets a little lost... well... you know.