That prospect has been a consistent asset to many a musical throughout the course of filmmaking, and in nearly all cases a parallel drawback is usually not far out of mind: the notion that once those particular characters leave the screen, they essentially leave the story on life support. That’s not to say the stories themselves are problematic, but rather the cinematic interpretations of them. On stage, a premise like “Into the Woods” comes to life not just because of who it stars but because the material is usually framed in a grandiose presentation relative to the size of an auditorium, creating an intimacy with its observers. That sense of affection often seems lost on movie directors, who enjoy staging elaborate technical shots while remaining aloof from the oratorical intricacies of the source material. For Marshall, who has now directed three of his own musicals (“Chicago” and “Nine” being the other two), that dilemma plays like a glaring stain that no one involved seems at liberty to deal with directly, and neither he nor his writer (the author of the original stage production, no less) are exactly eager to devise something to play against it. Except, of course, the inclusion of stars like Streep and Depp, who exist as obligatory (but effective) distractions.
The problem here is that none of their presences are consistent, and in those lengthy in-between patches “Into the Woods” sulks under a deadening series of moments in which characters sit around contemplating their fates with morose undertones, often boring the audience to tears. Certainly the premise of the picture contradicts that suggestion. It all opens on the eve of what one character refers to as the “Blue Moon,” a rare event which reportedly will inspire drastic changes in the humdrum existences of a select few faces of a drab-looking village. Among the residents of this quaint little place are some familiar names: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), a poor girl enslaved by the cruelty of step relatives; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), a young boy charged with selling his cow who accepts a payment of magic beans; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), a curious wanderer who is easily distracted from the task of travelling to her grandmother’s house; and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), a lost princess imprisoned at the top of a tower with long-flowing golden curls.
Their existence is peripheral, at least in context with the core intentions of the story; at the center of the action are a lowly Baker (James Corden) and his charming wife (Emily Blunt), two hard-working peasants whose only wish in the world – to have a child – comes to the forefront of importance when their neighbor, an ugly witch (Meryl Streep), pays a visit to inform them of the curse she once placed on their house. The relevance? All of it can be undone for a price: namely, the return of the Witch’s lost beauty, which can be restored only after the Baker and his wife procure a series of ingredients in time for the legendary blue moon to arrive three days later. As luck would have it, the four ingredients are all in possession by those unlucky subjects now wandering the nearby woods, each of whom possess their own wishes but do not comprehend the eventual consequences of dreaming with such lofty and uninformed ambition.
James Lapine’s story, which plays like a nightmare the Grimm brothers had after a night of binge eating, is a delightful yarn spun from the heart of a true storyteller, who uses his knowledge of the old children’s fables earnestly as he weaves them all together under the umbrella of a thoughtful point about creating individual destiny and marries them with some brilliant songs penned by Stephen Sondheim. How did those values get lost in the haze of this uneven production? My secondary theory is that Marshall is simply not the kind of director who can manage a musical successfully; this in spite of the fact that his “Chicago” – a film I did not admire – walked away with a healthy supply of Academy Awards so many years ago. His technique with the camera provides ample outlets for defining an ambitious style, but the secret to theatrical presentations is in setting the style and standing back while the dialogue, songs and characters do the rest of the work. Little of that happens here unless it is in the hands of four specific actors, and even then they aren’t so much taking possession of the story as they are offering momentary distractions from a much bigger problem – namely, the fact that costumes, set design and makeup dominate this adaptation while everything else takes the back seat, including general interest.
Blunt, Depp, Streep and Ullman are all brilliant stars even here, and there are at least a great many scenes featuring them that sparkle with their uncultivated enthusiasm. Depp in particular seems right at home in his performance as the Wolf; his knack for suspicious gazes and devious eyebrow-lifting are in synch with the core characterization, and he amps up the dynamic a couple of notches with a physical presence that is almost alarming in how creepy it eventually becomes. Blunt as the understated Baker’s wife is, in contrast, endlessly charming; there are moments where this story has her running around doing things aimlessly, but always she seems comfortable in the skin of her character, and balances the embarrassing nature of others with a presence that is calm and knowing with a sense of patience. Ullman has a few great scenes as Jack’s stubborn and resentful mother too, and Streep – always in command of her persona even in the shoddiest of material – is a perfect cast as the witch, often filling her scenes with such overreaching demand that the other characters look lost without her, as if standing around waiting for the moment she will come back into the frame.
When it comes to comparative points with other recent musical adaptations, “Into the Woods” is not a badly made musical movie; it has ambition, spirit and a defined sense of energy, and does not possess negative intentions or hidden agendas beyond the obligatory desire to put some sort of new spin on the age-old subject matter. In a lot of regards, it’s also very amusing. But it never achieves the take-off that it should, primarily because the director simply won’t allow himself to comprehend the material internally; he is imprisoned by the notion that this subject needs to be translated to screen sensibilities instead of simply being understood, and there are few moments he pauses long enough to gather the patience. Towards the end of the film, a character observes in lyric that children will “look to you for which way to turn.” But who bothers to ask what they will do if no one knows where they seem to be going in the first place?
Written by DAVID KEYES
Musical/Comedy (US); 2014; Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material; Running Time: 125 Minutes
Anna Kendrick: Cinderella
Daniel Huttlestone: Jack
James Corden: Baker
Emily Blunt: Baker's Wife
Christine Baranski: Stepmother
Chris Pine: Prince Charming
Tracey Ullman: Jack's Mother
Lilla Crawford: Little Red Riding Hood
Meryl Streep: Witch
Johnny Depp: Wolf
Billy Magnussen: Rapunzel's Prince
Mackenzie Mauzy: Rapunzel
Produced by John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Callum McDougal, Angus More Gorden, Marc Platt and Michael Zimmer; Directed by Rob Marshall; Written by James Lapine, based on his musical