Into the Woods (United States, 2014)

December 22, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Into the Woods Poster

Into the Woods left me out in the cold. The long-gestating cinematic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's fairy tale-infused Broadway musical, Into the Woods can claim a clever screenplay and a few enjoyable performances but little else. The generic musical numbers are choreographed with little in the way of verve and there's nary a catchy tune to be found. The film's dearth of emotional impact is grossly apparent when characters are dispatched and no one really cares. And the small budget (reportedly about $50 million) disallows any of the visual effects to be called "special."

It's questionable whether fans of the play are going to be thrilled with Marshall's interpretation. Not only does it elide an important character (The Narrator) but it changes the fate of another and tones down the overt sexual suggestiveness of two relationships (all in the name of family friendliness, of course). Sondheim grudgingly approved the changes but the language he employed in speaking about them makes it apparent that, although he recognizes the commercial necessity, the artistic implications don't thrill him.

The idea behind Into the Woods remains as fresh for the movie version as it was when it took the stage by storm more than 25 years ago. Four of The Brothers Grimm's tales are rebooted and interwoven: Cinderella (featuring Anna Kendrick in that role), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Added to these is a story that the Grimm siblings never wrote but might as well have - The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), unable to have a child, discover that a Witch (Meryl Streep, channeling her character from The Devil Wears Prada) has placed a curse on their house. To get it removed, they have three nights to go on a scavenger hunt and retrieve four items: a milky white cow, a blood-red cape, a corn-yellow strand of hair, and a golden slipper. So everyone goes into the woods, interacts, and comes out to live happily ever after… at least until Act II.

Marshall is no neophyte when it comes to making movie musicals. In fact, he's one of the few working directors who embraces the genre. His Chicago won the Oscar, after all. This makes it all the more surprising how flat Into the Woods is. The animated Disney musicals of the early '90s had more life. Only one musical number, the deliciously satirical "Agony," has the level of energy one would expect from this production, and its success is due more to the way in which Chris Pine plays the scene than the staging, choreography, or setting of the song.

Speaking of Pine (and with all apologies to the perennial Oscar nominee Meryl Streep), he's the best thing Into the Woods has to offer. His Prince Charming is the perfect mix of bluster, charisma, and empty-headedness. Put alongside his work in the otherwise execrable Horrible Bosses 2, he's showing genuine comedic chops. For the most part, his co-stars don't fare as well. Streep is (of course) a standout but Johnny Depp appears in only one scene with a total screen time not exceeding five minutes and "name" actors like Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt are given forgettable, wafer-thin parts.

Disney has built its animated stable in part on tweaked versions of fairy tales credited to the likes of The Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen. Two of the characters in Into the Woods are recognized Disney Princesses. (Note: Although Sleeping Beauty and Snow White made brief appearances in the stage version of the play, they have been deleted from the screen adaptation.) Perhaps the intention was to make this a companion piece to Maleficent - a live-adaptation reworking of popular animated fare. However, where Maleficent achieved something unique and stirring, Into the Woods is strangely stillborn. One wonders whether the studio's need to protect the images of their property has resulted in a whitewashing of Into the Woods.

In terms of its content, Into the Woods may be suitable for family audiences, but it's hard to imagine young children having much interest in a film that is consistently dark and pauses frequently for the actors to warble forgettable tunes. Just as there's nothing terribly wrong with Into the Woods, there's nothing terribly right, either. I'm sure it will make a lot of money - the Disney and Sondheim imprints are sufficient to guarantee a solid return on investment, but as Christmas Day's brightest light, this bulb needs replacement.

Into the Woods (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2014-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1