Into the Woods - Film Review - Magic Beans Have Expiration Dates
I must preface this review by making my readership aware of my deep love affair with the stage musical of Into the Woods. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim constructed a piece of theatre that was very personal for me and, through myriad viewings of the original Broadway cast, the show has become, not only an emotional outlet for me, but an important influence in how I view and respond to the world.
It is with a heavy heart, then, that I left the movie theatre this Christmas Day feeling like I was given a very uneven film treatment of Into the Woods. There is a tremendous amount to admire, but there is also a tremendous amount to disappoint. Director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Lapine, in fits and starts, have crafted an Into the Woods that is streamlined and spare, having excised much of the piece's humor, heart, and gravitas in an effort to keep the film moving.
Let me start by pointing out where the film succeeds (which it does in many ways). Meryl Streep as the Witch is in excellent vocal form and gut-wrenchingly interprets her big number "Stay with Me," with a true understanding of the parent-child relationship. We all know we can count on Streep to deliver, but I must admit that I was surprised she sang this role so convincingly. The true hero of this film is Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife. Setting aside Joanna Gleason's indelible creation as the original Baker's Wife, props need to be given to Blunt for finding her own way to the character's heart. She is particularly wonderful in the song "Any Moment" having a conflicted dalliance with Cinderella's Prince, and it's summation "Moments in the Woods." For me, Blunt knitted a defined interpretation of longing and hope out of a broadly outlined character, finding her own distinctive approach just as Gleason did: less humor but brimming with heart. Anna Kendrick's Cinderella was given an air of intelligence that has been lacking in many productions that have opted toward naïveté rather than inner conflict. This character vacillates, not because she's a moron, but because she over thinks. Kendrick's Cinderella is a relatable one because she finds the compelling nucleus of the character: lack of confidence = indecision. "On the Steps on the Palace" is the film's best and most inventive number, thanks mostly to Kendrick's deft interpretation and a frozen time concept that is brilliant. Chris Pine, and even more so Billy Magnuson, bring much-needed humor to this film in the form of two preening princes who are driven by the romantic quest, but motivated by outdoing each other. Their comic duet "Agony" practically concludes with them pulling out a ruler to see who's sword is bigger. Christine Baranski does an admirable job as the Wicked Stepmother, mining what few possibilities there are for this character to steal the spotlight. Tracy Ullman as Jack's Mother is given almost nothing to do, but it is fun to speculate how delightfully hectic she would have been if her best lines hadn't been whittled away.
Many people around me were noticeably creeped out by Johnny Depp as the lascivious, sexually predatory Wolf. It certainly could make you uncomfortable, but since Into the Woods never shied away from getting at the heart of fairy tales and their psychological implications, "Hello Little Girl" suggests exactly what it needs to without ever crossing into blatant pederasty. Depp as a hyper sexualized lupine "stranger with candy" is menacing but alluring, and sings the role with gusto.
This Into the Woods is visually everything we hoped for and more. Gingerbread style cottages, ornamental castles with glowing turrets, crumbling ruins of woodland towers, and a twisting, knotted forest full of rivers, glades, waterfalls, rock formations, and countless imposing trees. The costumes define each character perfectly, lush where they need to be, but never too ostentatious. The special effects make magical transformations, giants, beanstalks, and specialty sequences thrilling and artful.
This is where my admiration ends and I start to become critical of the film's egregious shortcomings. Chiefly, these shortcomings come in the cuts that the authors and director agreed to and one that Disney insisted upon. The stage script is complicated on plot but short on character development, with the songs offering the only introspection into their emotional depths. The loss of the song "Maybe They're Magic" eliminates one of the important arguments between the Baker and Baker's Wife, a squabble that reveals a lot about their relationship, their stressors, and the lengths they are willing to go to have a child. His character, especially, suffers from this loss and is hobbled mercilessly by the extrication of "No More," which provided his character's through line, forcing him to resolve his parenting issues, mourn the loss of his wife, and find the confidence to embrace his paternal responsibilities. Without this, his internal changes are too quick and seem more like mood swings than deeply imbedded issues that control him. This hinders actor James Corden, and it is unfair to critique his acting of a role that has been reduced to shadow of it's usual complexity.
The whole second half of the film feels rushed, trading storytelling for momentum. Too many life-altering points are glossed over, and characters are rarely given the opportunity to organically process loss, defeat and fear. Rapunzel should have died despite protestations from Disney. Her demise is at the crux of all of the Witch's desperation and anger. Without it, she has no reason for her animosity toward Jack. Without losing her child, there is no reason for her behavior.
The song "No One is Alone" has been trimmed, spliced, and sped up, doing a major disservice to the song that the film's director has identified as the message of the piece. This calm before the storm should have been the deep breath that we needed before the film's climactic battle with a giant. Instead, it just adds to the sensation that we are on a relentless treadmill aimed at reaching the final credits just as fast as we can. Truthfully, I would have been glad to sit for another 20 minutes of movie so that the emotion and character development could happen and songs could remain intact.
I wanted to love this film. In many places, I did. I don't buy this modern excuse that we have to let certain things go to keep films under a certain length. A story needs exactly the time it needs to unfold, and a musical film of a play that is long, complicated and beloved should be given what is required to keep it's integrity. I understand the choices that have been made; I just don't necessarily agree with them. It really depends on the rules you set in advance and the kind of film you want to make. This is a good film of Into the Woods, but it is not a great film. The magic beans have an expiration date.