A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2015

INTO THE WOODS jj
½   

2014, PG, 125 mins.

 

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella  /  James Corden as The Baker  /  Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince  /  Johnny Depp as The Wolf  /  Emily Blunt as The Baker's Wife  /  Meryl Streep as The Witch  /  Lucy Punch as Lucinda  /  Christine Baranski as Cinderella's Stepmother  /  Tracey Ullman as Jack's Mother  /  Simon Russell Beale as The Baker's Father

Directed by Rob Marshall  /  Written by James Lapine

INTO THE WOODS debuted nearly 30 years ago on the Broadway stage and it was a long standing musical triumph for audiences and critics alike in terms of how it took inspiration from the Brothers Grimm fairy tales – like Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk –  by honoring their essence while exploring the darker impulses of their characters and their decisions.  It homogenized all of these fairy tales and then further combined them with an original story of a baker and wife struggling to have a baby and a wicked witch that has a dastardly manner of assisting them.  INTO THE WOODS put the grim back into the Brothers Grimm canon, reminding audiences of how deeply unsettling their themes were. 

Ironically, the larger problem that has befallen the big screen Disney adaptation of the stage musical is that it's a Disney-fied PG iteration of it, which has lamentably neutered most of the stage version’s gutsy nerve.  Director Rob Marshall is certainly no stranger to the musical genre (he helmed the only musical of the last decade to win an Oscar for Best Picture in CHICAGO), and he lovingly evokes INTO THE WOODS as a fine piece of filmmaking on a level of technical craft (the film looks great, despite its surprisingly meager $50 million budget, which is scandalously $15 million cheaper than the recently released ANNIE).  Still, Marshall can’t seem to fine a consistent sense of pacing and tone to the piece, not to mention that the overtly macabre sexual and violent overtones of the original musical are all but AWOL here.  The cast is indeed quite game, assured, and uniformly superb and their vocal range is superlative, but Marshall's handling of the underlining material undermines their work. 

 

 

To be fair, INTO THE WOODS captures the narrative of its stage antecedent quite well and has a rousingly good opening act that – ostensibly through song – expeditiously introduces us to all of the characters, their predicaments, and sets up the larger story to come.  Four of the aforementioned Brothers Grimm fairy tales are relayed, albeit with minor tweaks here and there, and are submerged within the larger tale of a Baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt) and their childless woes.  The Witch (Meryl Streep) has placed a nasty curse on their house, but the only manner to release it is for the husband and wife to retrieve four items: a white (of the milky variety) cow, a red cape, a yellow strand of hair, and a golden slipper.  Of course, those items sound familiar, because they belong, in one form or another, to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).  The couple must, as a result of their dicey situation, con their way through all of these people in order to secure the items they so desperately need.  Not everyone, alas, lives happily ever after when the film concludes.  Hell, some don’t end up living at all. 

A cast not fully invested in the proceedings would have all but sunk INTO THE WOODS, but Marshall has assembled some truly fine performers here, all of which take great relish in their roles, many that are twisted and turned well beyond our popular understanding of them.  I enjoyed the tandem of Corden and Blunt for their limitless chemistry and infectiously fantastic on-screen appeal.  Kendrick, who’s already proven herself to be a singer of remarkable range, manages to marry nimble enthusiasm with a low-key melancholy that suits her role rather well.  Rather predictably, Streep’s witch character is a deliciously evil showstopper and the actress shows a fiery commitment and poise in harnessing the more grandiose elements of her protagonist.  The actress, alongside her fine work in MAMMA MIA!, seems to be making a solid and effective career segue into movie musicals. 

The film, alas, has one huge performance standout and one depressing letdown.  Of all of the actors, it’s Chris Pine as the hysterically narcissistic Prince Charming that kind of quietly steals the movie from the rest of the cast.  Born to be "charming, not sincere” (by his own admission), the constantly poising and vanity-driven Prince seems positively baffled that Cinderella hardly pays any attention to him.  Pine has a wickedly droll duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they literally tear open their shirts in frustration as to their womanizing woes.  Pine deserves serious props for (a) being a shockingly good singer and (b) self-deprecatingly sending up his own movie star image as a sex symbol.  The actor seems to be deriving the most pure visible enjoyment out of playing up to – and then gleefully mocking - the conventions of his character.  

The performance letdown, alas, is Johnny Depp, not so much because he’s not a dynamic presence in the film, which he assuredly is.  The actor looks sinfully mischievous as the Big Bad Wolf (the costume design by Colleen Atwood is stellar) and fully understands – perhaps more so than the film he’s in – the unsavory predatory sexual nature of the character he’s playing.  While maliciously stalking his prey in Red Riding Hood, Deep joyously spews up lyrics like “There’s no way to describe what you feel when you’re talking to your meal.”  The whole thrust of the relationship between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood is laced cringe worthy pedophile undertones and Depp plays off of this, but his Wolf is such a non-entity in the film (he’s more of a gloried cameo) and Marshall seems too damn inhibited to explore it to its fullest.  Depp is all but dispatched with early on and the film abandons the character rather hastily.  What a letdown. 

Granted, and again, that’s the biggest deficiency of INTO THE WOODS; it’s not that the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine numbers aren’t catchy or that the cast is incapable of infusing ample life into them.  No, INTO THE WOODS feels too watered down, too timid, and too unsure of how far it should push the material for its own good.  Being a product of Disney, I understand the larger financial imperatives of making the musical a family friendly affair, but artistically INTO THE WOODS sort of betrays its own material and the stage musical its cueing from.  That, and at 125 minutes, Marshall’s film saunters on for far too long after its fairly decent opening and second act, which has the negative effect of leaving the film as a whole feeling lopsided.  As far as Hollywood musicals go, INTO THE WOODS sure looks the part (it’s lavishly staged and produced) and the cast is splendidly dynamic.  Yet, as a twisted and subversive wink-wink, nudge-nudge mash up and send-up of the works of Brothers Grimm, the film lacks the teeth and bite of the Big Bad Wolf.

MY CTV REVIEW:

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