If you’re a fan of Stephen Sondheim, chances are strong that “Into the Woods” — Rob Marshall’s colorful adaptation of Sondheim’s 1987 Broadway fairy tale mashup — won’t come as much of a surprise: Several well-known characters from magical stories of yore sing their way through a messy plot. It’s fan fiction writ large.
As they unleash a series of lavish tunes against a backdrop of castles and enchanted forests, some viewers may give over to the genial spectacle with all the surface pleasures that entails. Chief among them is a typically first-rate and borderline nutso Meryl Streep, who once again transcends the limitations of her material, and lush cinematography by Dion Beebe (his second otherworldly effort this year after “Edge of Tomorrow”) that regularly breaks free of the stagey conventions.
Paradoxically, however, most scenes in “Into the Woods” go down easy even as the big picture amounts to a chore. Marshall juggles the multifaceted plot with a workmanlike quality as the director stuffs overlapping material into an unwieldy two hours. There’s plenty of creative potential on display, but more than anything else, it’s just an energetic chore.
The irony is that the bulk of events that comprise “Into the Woods” don’t require much explanation: A childless baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) and her panicky husband (James Corden) agree to meet the demands of a pouty witch (Streep) who promises to help them bear a child. Her marching orders call for the couple to gather a series of random objects, including the cloak of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and a cow belonging to Jack (Daniel Huddleston), of Beanstalk fame. In a mostly unrelated strand, the prince of the kingdom sets his sights on Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who naturally endures a life of hardship with her evil stepmother.
There’s lot of scheming and dashing around as everyone sets about their respective tasks, setting the stage for a mock happy ending, followed by a meek third act in which the entire cast winds up coming together in the face of an angry giant invading their land. The songs, faithfully lifted from the original material, hardly reach the level of grandeur allotted to the set design, but maybe that’s the point. The setting of “Into the Woods” begs for a cinematic treatment far greater than the blithe soundtrack at its core. To that end, while it may have been gestating for years, the entire concept is a lost cause.
But it’s possible that Sondheim devotees feel differently. This is a big, flashy studio movie engineered to satisfy a very precise set of expectations. To that end, it’s not altogether distinguishable from Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” which opens this week and basically spoils its entire plot with the title. Jackson’s third entry in a wholly unnecessary dicing up of “The Hobbit” into three rambling chapters offers a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing but the usual routine: elves, orcs, a kingdom in flames, and a hobbit caught up helplessly in the midst of it all. It’s easy to relate to Martin Freeman’s constant look of desperation. As with “Into the Woods,” Jackson’s movie illustrates unwavering dedication to studio-mandated bottom-line: Give the people what they want, rather than surprising them with something new. Together the two movies illustrate the contradictory impulses of blockbusters at their very worst — not bad so much as doggedly committed to a lack of ingenuity.
Fortunately, there’s another imaginary tale with vibrant music out now that offers far more rewards. Over two months after it opened, “Whiplash” continues to screen across the country. Damien Chazelle’s lively account of a committed young drum student (Miles Teller) and the unfathomably harsh instructor who berates him at every turn (J.K. Simmons) departs from reality from its very first scene. Simmons delivers his finest work and deserves the supporting actor Oscar coming his way, but at no point in the movie does it seem as though his vulgar, abusive tactics would ever make it through the door in a respectable institution of higher learning. It’s also utterly absurd to imagine that the only goal of any serious drummer is nothing more than maintaining a speedy rhythm. But “Whiplash” doesn’t try to replicate the real world. In its wacky, assaultive way, it’s a more satisfactory wonderland than anything in Middle Earth or Sondheim’s kingdom.
Chazelle builds an entirely fresh and surprising fantasy around the entire conceit of musical ambition. He bathes every scene in an alarming level of uncertainty about its characters’ motives: Are Teller and Simmons somehow engaged in a fetishistic process of refining their talent or do they truly resent each other? Chazelle’s breathless pace makes it difficult to stop and consider the facts; the results are liberating for the sheer intensity with which the director pushes each scene ahead. It’s musically short-sighted and sometimes illogical, but it grounds the drama in completely realistic performance anxieties.
“The Hobbit” never aims to freshen up its matter. The CGI-enabled landscape, once a triumph of technologically-powered storytelling, has grown drab and predictable on purpose. “Into the Woods” has better aims, but still comes up short. There may be audiences more comfortable with its gentle melodies, the good-natured consolidation of tried-and-true stories and some undercurrents of darkness embedded in the material. But it’s also constricted for those same reasons. By the time the movie arrives at a sincere finish with hints of genuine emotion, it comes with a shrug. “Into the Woods” may deliver the experience as advertised, but that’s exactly why it feels so uninspired.