Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine) is probably the best active filmmaker doing film adaptations of musicals. In his film version of Chicago, Marshall combined staginess w/ the storytelling tools of cinema to create the best of both worlds: flashy musicals brought to life by cinematic inventions. In Into The Woods, Marshall teams up with Disney for his third movie musical, based on a Steven Sondheim stage show and the material has Marshall integrating the music into the action, with characters who really do sing to each other in a story that doesn’t require clunky excuses for them to do so. It probably also helps that the narrative is set at an intersection of classic fairy tales (some have already been adapted by Disney) where singing doesn’t feel quite so out of place, even for musical-averse audiences. The story follows a witch (Meryl Streep) who informs her neighbors, a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), that she can break a family curse if they can retrieve certain objects for a spell. This sends them into the woods (hey, just like the title!), and toward familiar faces playing bit roles in more well known tales like Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of beanstalk-climbing fame. With masterful direction and an impeccable cast, Into The Woods is a delightful trip through stories many of us are familiar with…for the most part.
The original 1986 stage musical by Sondheim and James Lapine (who also handled the screenplay adaptation) was well known for fracturing these familiar tales to varying degrees while also embracing the tropes that made those tales so enduring. However the film also has to find the time to update things a little for the screen while still staying true to Sondheim’s somewhat dated material. It’s a tricky balance, and at times the movie tangles up Sondheim cynicism and Disney optimism. More often than not the final product ends up cleaning up certain aspects like muting some of the sexuality and darkness to some of the proceedings. Not having experienced the original play, I was struck by how enjoyable and crafty the first 2/3rds of the film was. I was wondering where all the hype was for this well-produced musical film that was not afraid to embrace and co-opt the topes and aspects of Disney fairytales rather than clumsily deconstructing them or denying them. And then the final 1/3rd happened. This was where I believe Marshall and Disney should have taken more liberties with the source material. See, Into The Woods (the play) was one of the progenitors of the “there’s no such thing as fairy tales” type narratives but that means it’s chock full of storytelling issues and questionable conclusions/implications that successive works do not have. I can’t give much in the way of spoilers, needless to say, the late-game tonal whiplash you feel makes for an obvious marker for when the film probably should have ended before devolving into something less refined and enjoyable.
The direction and cast talent however, is magical. Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe wield some sophisticated camera work in place of Chicago’s hyperactive cuts, and several of the most important songs, especially those sung by Streep and Blunt, play out in a series of longer takes. This film is leagues ahead of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables film just in sheer filmmaking quality alone. Even better: the actors enrich the adaptation: Blunt is a talented singer and she weaves in a strong performance where she breaks into incredulous or nervous laughter at strategic moments, making for a lovely puncturing of typical Broadway bombast. Streep’s role initially calls for more traditional showboating, which she dutifully provides before revealing greater depths of emotion later on. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen have no such responsibilities but the two briefly steal the movie as two princes with their hilariously self-pitying lovesickness while performing “Agony.” “Agony” is one of the most distinct musical numbers of the film, it also perfectly encapsulates the rest of the set pieces quite well and the filmmakers’ decision to stage it the way it ended up was dynamite. Placing the princes at the top of a waterfall, it’s like something out of a medieval take on an 80s music video. It was delightfully campy and theatrical. Which is how I would best describe the first 2/3rds of the movie.
With its knowing and loving embrace of all things Disney musical fairytales, spectacular filmmaking on display, incredible casting (comedy legend Tracy Ullman in a starring role!) Into The Woods is 2/3rds of one of the best musical movies I’ve seen. It does not stick its landing however, and remains little more than just another pretty little ditty, the cinematic equivalent of a charming pop song playing on the radio that you always remember fondly but never feel compelled to make an album purchase.