Into the Woods

And out of our hearts: this drab Disney musical is the anti-Cinderella

Into the Woods

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Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Lucy Punch, Mackenzie Mauzy, Christine Baranski, James Corden, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Magnussen, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford. Written by James Lapine, from his musical with songs by Stephen Sondheim.

A drab, cynical amalgamation of famous fairy tales tropes only occasionally brought to life through some lively performances and Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful music and lyrics, the Disney-produced film adaptation of Into the Woods is a drag.

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I thought Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella was too Disney-fied, but this concoction from the studio goes in the other direction entirely: director Rob Marshall takes the material so seriously that he removes all the fun. Fairy tales – especially the Brothers Grimm ones featured here – can be dark, but they shouldn’t be dull; Into the Woods is like the Zach Snyder version of a Disney musical.  

Based on the 1987 Broadway musical written and directed by James Lapine – who adapted his original book for this screen version – Into the Woods combines familiar Grimm Brothers storylines from Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel with a new plot surrounding a childless baker and his wife. 

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James Corden and Emily Blunt star as the Baker and his Wife, ostensibly the heroes of this piece. Through Sondheim’s verse – which flows throughout roughly half the movie – we learn the backstory of why they can’t conceive: a Witch (vibrantly played by Meryl Streep, in a role created by Bernadette Peters on Broadway) has placed a curse on their family.

The Witch, however, offers them a way out: if Baker & Wife can obtain a number of fairy tale artifacts – which will lift a curse placed on the Witch – she will in turn lift the curse placed on them. 

This is a great excuse for the story to pull in the memorable Grimm Brothers characters: they need the cape as red as blood from Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), a cow as white as snow from Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), a slipper as pure as gold from Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and hair as yellow as corn from Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).

Familiar supporting characters in these subplots include The Wolf (top-billed Johnny Depp, who has less than five minutes of screen time), Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman), Cinderella’s stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch) and her charming Prince (Chris Pine), and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen).

Few of these characters get enough screen time to shine, though Ullman is terrific and Pine and Magnussen croon the film’s musical highlight, belting out the comical duet Agony. Also fun: the whirlwind Prologue (including Streep’s rendition of The Witch’s Rap), and Crawford’s I Know Things Now. Young Crawford (Annie in the latest stage version) and Huttlestone (Les Misérables) are both excellent, by the way, outshining the adult leads.

Solid story, good performances and music, elaborate production. So where did this film version go wrong? 

Tone. The original production is both wicked and wickedly funny – it’s a satire of the original fairy tales, presenting one where things do not end Happily Ever After, and has a lot of fun with these characters along the way. While this adaptation has retained much of the original storyline – though the more graphic elements have been toned down for family audiences – I was shocked to see joke after joke fall completely flat.

That’s because the filmmakers take this adaptation so seriously that it becomes quite literally a grim affair – which is odd considering the violence and sexual content has been re-written to occur offscreen, or not at all. No, this is a dark, humorless version loaded with CGI effects that overwhelm the performances and render this whole thing a real chore to sit through. The film’s second half, a one-note slog that threatens to become Jack the Giant Slayer, particularly suffers.

Marshall is no stranger to the genre – he was nominated for an Oscar for Chicago – but Into the Woods has more in common with his self-serious treatment of Nine. That’s a real shame, though this adaptation has at least reproduced a good soundtrack. 

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