Review: ‘Into the Woods’

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After a foray into action/adventure territory with a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) has now returned to the musical genre to adapt into film Into the Woods, a beloved Broadway production in which classic fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Bean Stalk, are woven together into one narrative and lampooned before being subverted in the musical’s dark second act. Woods features a top-notch ensemble, including Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine.

Rebecca: Sick of the trend of movie stars singing and dancing onscreen to prove their craft? Well, then, blame Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) and—perhaps more successfully—Rob Marshall. Marshall’s first major directorial effort, 2002’s Chicago, was a commercial and critical success that won the Best Picture Academy Award and snagged Catherine Zeta-Jones an Oscar. Unfortunately, Marshall returned to the genre in 2009 with Nine, a celebrity talent show masquerading as a movie that failed to win the box office or award-show prestige.

So has Marshall redeemed himself with Into the Woods?

For the most part, this adaptation retains the original production’s lauded Sondheim music and satirical tone, and though some of the blunter edges have been smoothed for mass consumption, Woods still explores themes of loss and fidelity in a winking, self-aware way. Streep and Blunt, although not great singers, hit their notes the best they can while making up the difference with some solid acting.

Though perhaps typecast as a cheesetastic prince, Pine gets to perform one of the catchiest and funniest songs in the film, “Agony,” and gets to deliver some of the best lines in the script too.

Where does the adaptation miss the mark?

Probably Johnny Depp’s oddly styled (he looks like a Prohibition-era conman sorely in need of a bath and nail clippers) contribution as the Big Bad Wolf. Not because Depp’s singing is meh (though it is).

The central problem is that while the filmmakers elected to keep the wolf’s sole song, a not-so-subtle take on the wolf’s stalking of Little Red Riding Hood that’s chock full of sexual innuendo, they also cast a prepubescent Riding Hood, making for an awkward, and slightly pervy, dynamic.

It’s also true that during the second act the source material shows its limitations, as scenes clearly were constructed with the stage in mind. Characters too often coincidentally meet and bicker in the woods, making the scope of the production feel small and un-cinematic. And the loss of the original play’s narrator—who has a memorable moment in the second act—also is felt.

But overall, Into the Woods is pretty fun. What say you? As a fan of the occasional musical, perhaps I’m being too forgiving?

Ryan: I don’t think so. Though you might actually be going a little easy on Depp, whose character (clad in a costume even Tim Burton would slowly back away from) and big number are “slightly” pervy in the same way that Sharknado is only “kind of amazing”. Into the Woods falls somewhere between pastiche and parody; in either case, like any readily available example of either, it draws on our pre-existing knowledge of fairy tale characters such as Cinderella, Prince Charming, Little Red Riding Hood or … some baker?

Uh, anyway, the film—like, presumably, the musical—often uses this familiarity as a substitute for characterization. That’s fine, insofar as a deep dive into the psyche of Jack (of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame) isn’t on Into the Woods‘ to-do list. But it also contributes to the film’s overall disposability.

Some of the choices made in adapting the musical from the stage also rob the film version of some weight. For instance, the second act has been truncated, with several musical numbers—including a reprieve of “Agony,” which really is the best thing Into the Woods has going for it—removed. The latter parts of the film feel rushed, as if someone during editing suddenly realized, “Oh crap, this thing’s gotta be two hours long!” The result is a top-heavy experience that transitions sharply from taking its time to speeding recklessly towards its conclusion.

Casting is another area where the film can’t get entirely out of its own way. In the stage musical, actors take on multiple roles the characters in question are thematically linked to some degree. For example, the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, both representing “lust” or “hunger,” are traditionally played by the same person. In the film, this doesn’t occur because … well, stunt casting triumphs over all, I guess. Though I’m not sure that letting Chris Pine play the Wolf would make too much difference given the pervy undertones specific to the cinematic version of the character. Regardless, that’s another way that the film is more of a lightweight engagement than it could have been.

That said, if this is fluff, at least it’s competent fluff. The songs are memorable, if a little repetitive, and the book (A.K.A. the parts of a musical that aren’t musical; i.e. dialogue) is clever and witty. And Pine gives an even more Shatner-esque performance than he has in either of his Star Trek appearances to date. Into the Woods is easily enjoyed and even more easily forgotten.

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