A grand, visually impressive adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical theater production, Disney‘s “Into The Woods” is at the outset enchanting, even entertaining. And if there were concerns that some of the darker, adult themes in the movie wouldn’t be addressed, well, this version is a lot more somber than you might imagine. But perhaps counter intuitively, this approach works to the detriment of the picture’s tenor, rhythm and initially vibrant energy: “Into The Woods” soon loses its spark in an enervating and overlong third act that winds up as a cul de sac to nowhere. Directed by Rob Marshall, ‘Woods’ certainly has its moments and a few enjoyable musical set-pieces, but that dour and drudging final section quickly saps the movie of its various charms.
Mostly sticking to Sondheim’s basic plot faithfully —a mish mash of fairy tale tropes and Brothers Grimm stories— “Into The Woods” centers on a baker, his wife (James Cordon and Emily Blunt) and a wicked Witch (Meryl Streep) who reveals a curse she placed on their family years ago. To lift the spell (an infertility hex), the witch makes the married couple an offer: collect various items from their realm including a red cape, a silver slipper, a golden lock of hair and other sundry items that happen to connect to many classic children’s tales. Enter Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp); Cinderella (Anna Kendrick); her handsome, vain prince (Chris Pine); Jack, the boy with a magic bean that creates gigantic beanstalks (Daniel Huttlestone); Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and various characters related to these fables.
With this goal set in motion, Blunt and Cordon’s characters stumble into the dark, unforgiving woods in search of these prizes, bumping into the other denizens with their own storylines and of course their own musical soliloquies. It’s a simple and seemingly effective narrative —a song is sung upon the introduction of every character— but even this approach eventually loses its potency and desired affect with so much repetition.
As the characters and their narratives become entangled, the story begins to lose its momentum and sets the stage for a dark and dreary third act, transforming this slight but diverting musical into an attempt to say something serious about children, orphans and family. And while the shift in tone may work onstage, in Marshall’s movie the change takes the pin out of its energy like a quickly deflating balloon. It’s remarkable and jarring just how pleasant the first 90 minutes are and how quickly the movie becomes dead weight thereafter.
The highlight obviously is Meryl Streep. As the Witch with a shock of blue hair, she steals all her scenes and her musical solo “Stay With Me” —a genuinely wrenching song about the conflict of letting children go and the selfishness of parenthood— is fabulously emotional and engrossing. But no other musical performance in the film approaches that transformative, floating-on-air-for-a-second level. In fact, bottle it up and watch it again. It’s better than the entire film.
Shot by Dion Beebe (“Nine” and parts of Michael Mann’s “Collateral“), Marshall’s movie is at once familiar and occasionally ravishing with VFX that do not look the slightest bit cheap. The film outdoes Tim Burton with respect to the business of being Tim Burton, but unlike that increasingly lost filmmaker, Marshall knows where to draw a line at camp and overexposed color; there are creepy contours of darkness around the edges of “Into The Woods.” These aesthetic choices go a long way in preventing the movie from appearing too silly —even when you have Depp mugging as a Tex Avery-esque wolf (mercifully, his appearance is no more than a 10 minute cameo).
‘Woods’ has a few other agreeable highlights. It’s well known that Kendrick can sing her ass off and Pine’s self-involved enamored-with-the-girl song (“Agony,” co-sung by Billy Magnussen playing the prince in love with Rapunzel) is funny and endearing, but these are moments best savored as something you’d dial up on YouTube, rather than sitting through the entire movie again.
Of course, the sober third act is the meat of the movie, where the allegories of orphans, unreliable parental figures and the tall tales they feed their children coalesce. And while it’s crucial to the adaptation thematically, it drains the movie of all its appeal in execution, dragging and puttering along like it’s suffering from smoke inhalation. As the picture grows tonally dim, it becomes a dreary slog; whatever good will earned from the enchanting first half is quickly overcome by a fog of gloom. The bummer note the film ends on doesn’t help either.
Crowdpleasing until it’s not, “Into The Woods” was always going to be too inconsequential to be anything more than an occasionally pleasurable musical, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But Marshall can’t decide how to condense this story into something a bit more palatable without compromising Sondheim’s story. Indeed, the last act’s musical soliloquies feel more like an obligation for every remaining character to get in their final statement edgewise, rather than a crucial element of the story. “Into The Woods” has its moments, especially any time Streep is on screen, but as it strains on at an overlong two hours, the glitter of fairy tale movie magic diminishes, leaving only a pale shadow. [C]