Review: Into the Woods

K. Montinola (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2015 - 3:40pm

Adapting a musical into film is always a trial, because it’s a transmutation process. The source material has to be changed in ways that draw out its best characteristics on the screen, which is practically an alchemical difference to the stage. In short, adapting one of Broadway’s beloved could not have been easy. Still, the filmmakers had Steven Sondheim on their side, and if you’re a fan of Sondheim’s music you will enjoy Into The Woods.

Directed by Rob Marshall and adapted from the 1987 Broadway by Sondheim and James Lapine, the film follows an intertwining of the lives of several familiar fairy-tale characters. As is the way of musical movies an all-star cast has been provided: there is the childless couple, a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), and their neighbor who happens to be a witch (Meryl Streep). There is poor Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who has to sell his only friend the cow and ends up with some magic beans, and his mother (Tracy Ullman); there is Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and the wolf she meets (glorified cameo by Johnny Depp); there is Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), her stepfamily (Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard), and the charming prince intrigued by the maiden who flees into the woods each night (Chris Pine—there’s always at least one puzzling casting choice…).

The film is not so expertly divided into acts as a musical can be, so attention on the characters individual arcs is important. Here the actors deliver. Streep is, of course, boundlessly good in her role as the witch. Emily Blunt and James Corden make a great core couple, driving much of the story forward with their quest to have a child. Daniel Huttlestone gets to expand on the talent he was allowed to show as Gavroche in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. And yes, that one number with Chris Pine’s prince made it worth the agony of his singing.

Story-wise, the abrupt shift from the first act to the second makes it jarring for someone unfamiliar with the musical. The first act felt like one movie, with clever writing bringing all of the characters together, while the second act felt like a sequel simply dealing with all the consequences of the first. It’s a fine practice for a musical on stage, but can feel overlong in film. Marshall has good experience with both film and musical theatre, and Into the Woods has some quality moments, but the overall movement might have waffled too much in trying to be both like stage and film. 

In the grand scale of fairy-tale films, it’s shiny and on the positive side of average; it does all the usual tricks with costumes and effects to make it pleasing (the costuming was very pleasing, actually). As for the claim that it offers an alternate view of fairy-tales, it draws up light on the deconstruction. The so-called “darker world” and the neat tying up of the characters’ stories do not do anything radically different from the fairy-tale adaptation of recent memory. Paced differently, it might have given us a more impactful treatment of its moral; as it is it just gives us a rather stunted analysis of how we can endure adversity if we are not alone. To do this, of course, we must not assign blame. It’s a simple enough path from there to our not-quite-happy-ending.

Into the Woods is not the catchiest of musicals, but it is visually enjoyable and is buoyed by its earnest cast. There is some wisdom, some emotion, and the right amount of enchantment to keep it going, but you’re as likely to watch it for Streep’s witch as you are for Chris Pine’s prince. You’ll get a few pleasant surprises, though none are particularly awe-inspiring. And I can’t say I understand what Marshall meant when he told Variety that this was the fairy-tale for the post-9/11 generation, though I guess it is nice of him to want us to know that we are not alone.

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