I trust “Into The Woods” makes a fine stage production. I have never attended a show, but judging from this film adaptation I am inclined to believe that the stage version would be something rather miraculous and entertaining, with a lot of flashes of lights and thunderous booms to energise the crowd. We may walk away from it remembering nothing of the plot or the characters or the songs, but at least the experience will be worth it.
Alas, its transition to screen falls painfully flat. Director Rob Marshall, who also directed Chicago (2002) and won for it the Academy Award for Best Picture, appears to have attended the stage show one too many times and decided it would work as a film simply by placing a camera in front of a few actors on a sound stage and letting the material speak, or sing, for itself. Usually this works for stage-to-screen adaptations (think back to Polanski’s Carnage ), but Marshall’s Into The Woods is one big miscalculation.
I am inclined to make a note of the camera’s purpose within a film. A camera is meant to capture images, yes, but this is not a documentary where objectivity is a passport, nor is it a serious courtroom drama where the camera need only observe what is unfolding; this is a whimsical fantasy film. The camera should also move with delight to reveal plot, to identify characters, to highlight anguish and conflict, to appear magical, to evoke some kind of mystical hidden meaning — to be fun. There is no meaning in this film, hidden or otherwise. The camera, for the most part, is motionless (save for pans, tracks and tilts) and in front of it characters move, usually in darkness.
It’s dark because much of the story takes place in the eponymous Woods, where barren trees arch and writhe towards each other, bubbling swamps spurt plumes of smoke into the dank air and the light of the moon finds its rest on the canopy. This is also the same Woods that looks endless and ominous in all the wide shots but is small enough for all our central characters to bump into one another at will throughout the plot, as if, yes, they’re performing on a stage! Marshall has forgotten that the world in film is 360 degrees and expansive, not confined to a platform with modular sets.
The plot is a mixed bowl of Grimm fairytales. There are four concurrent stories, one about Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk (don’t you dare), one about Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), one about Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and one about Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). Tying them together are the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), who have been cursed by the wicked Witch (Meryl Streep) never to bear any offspring. But of course the Witch is not evil enough to not provide a remedy; the Baker and his Wife have till the stroke of midnight on the third day to find Jack’s cow, Riding Hood’s cape, Cinderella’s slipper and Rapunzel’s hair and bring them all to the Witch, who will then lift the curse and return to a beauty long forgotten.
For reasons too tiresome to explain, all seven characters must travel through the Woods to complete the story. We also meet the Prince from “Cinderella” (Chris Pine) and his brother, the Prince from “Rapunzel” (Billy Magnussen), who share a song on the edge of a waterfall so dramatic it could play as their audition tapes for X-Factor.
This “Cinderella” Prince is a real doof. Each night for three nights Cinderella makes her obligatory visit to his castle, where they dance and frolic till the clock — or in the case of Into The Woods, the moon — strikes midnight, then Cinderella has to flee. Is the Prince incapable of finding out why she has to flee at the same time every night? Could he not choose an equally beautiful girl somewhere within his castle who perhaps has no reason to run away? Men enjoy the chase, don’t they.
The production values of Into The Woods are extravagant. The Woods looks like an entity on its own; I am curious to see how it looks on stage, how it is dressed and soaked to appear eerie and unwelcoming. In the movies colour-grading and effects help; on stage the only grading is done with our eyes.
The acting, too, is of a high standard. Meryl Streep proves she can belt out a ballad as well as the rest of them while suffering false teeth. I grew particularly fond of Blunt, Corden and Crawford, who are not so serious as to forget the kind of movie they are in. Corden, especially, handles his character as if he were performing a standup routine in Disneyland, which is a fun little twist.
What of the music and the songs? Let’s just say they’re about as charming and memorable as that old drunk neighbour you always heard about but never met. I love me a good musical, and I love many, but Into The Woods is entirely forgettable, and its songs make the grave error of standing outside the narrative. A good musical should tell its story through song, so that if you miss a key chorus line or lyric, you miss something important. Here, the Baker and his Wife sing an entire song about love and such frivolities while the story stands still to regard them. They forget they have a deadline to meet. The song is so meaningless to the story that I regret to inform you Into The Woods would have been a much better film if it wasn’t a musical at all.
Best Moment | Any of Chris Pine’s scenes.
Worst Moment | What’s up with the end? Why do Jack and Riding Hood merrily sit down in front of the Baker to hear him tell a story they just lived through themselves?