Special effects-strewn, literal-minded, occasionally baffling, Rob Marshall’s take on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods can’t be said to herald the arrival of a great new movie musical. It’s easy to see the appeal to Disney of this 1986 show, which – in its mash-up of various Grimm stories – jibes nicely with the current vogue for cinematic revisions of fairy-tales. Yet, as with Maleficent (2014) et al., the end results don’t quite add up to the sum of several appealing parts here.
Ardent Sondheimites will doubtless be eager to pin the movie’s shortcomings on Disneyfication. That may be true up to a point, but I’d argue that the film merely highlights the problems inherent in the original Sondheim material: the bittiness of the structure, the sometimes inelegantly-integrated narrative strands, the sentimental lurches, and – let’s face it – a score that offers as much in the way of teeth-grinding jauntiness as it does exquisite beauty. It also accentuates some weirdly conservative underpinnings, making the piece look more reactionary than revisionist for the most part. A female character is killed off immediately after indulging in a brief transgression. Cinderella, ultimately, just wants to go back to sweeping the floor. The “alternative” moral lessons offered - “witches can be right, giants can be good, no-one is alone” – aren’t precisely profound. (A question: has anyone asked of this musical - as so many seemed to ask of Samuel Adamson and Tori Amos's vastly superior The Light Princess - "But who is this show for?")
The shakiness of Marshall’s direction (some scenes are execrably staged, especially those involving multiple characters at the mid-point of the movie) means that the film never inspires much confidence, and its tone wobbles all over the place. The manic cutting in the opening sequence attempts to bring the disparate strands together in a cinematic way. But still the characters’ clunky entrances and exits, and the jarring reporting of off-screen deaths, make the piece feel helplessly stage-bound, and the film never consistently achieves the fluidity to make it really fly.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t manage some high spots, especially in its more intimate moments. “Agony”, with Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s Princes ripping open their shirts in masochistic glee, is wittily done. Emily Blunt comes through with a fine, delicately shaded performance as the Baker’s Wife, and she and James Corden (as the Baker) duet delightfully on “It Takes Two,” one of the (too few) moments that genuinely does justice to the notion of the woods as a site of transformation for the characters. (Without Blunt to bounce off, Corden is bland.)
As in The Iron Lady (2011) Meryl Streep as the Witch again looks like she's just stepped out of Hocus Pocus (1993). But she brings great emotion to her reading of “Stay With Me”, and once more demonstrates her gift for really acting her way through the songs, even when getting (literally) overwhelmed by the staging on “Last Midnight.” None of the vocals make you cower in your seat the way the shrill Broadway OCR can but some of the performers (Johnny Depp as the Wolf; Annette Crosbie as Little Red Riding Hood's Grandmother; Simon Russell Beale as the Baker's Father) register so weakly that they might just as well have saved their energies. A mixed bag, to say the least.