I wish I had seen a stage version of Into the Woods before stepping foot into Rob Marshall’s inept and incompetent mess of a film adaption of the beloved Stephen Sondheim’s beloved fractured fairy tale universe musical. I was lost within seconds despite having a passing knowledge of the overall plot, the songs, and the intent of the play going in. 80% of the time I had no clue what was going on, and 100% of the time I didn’t care. Clearly it was made with the express intent that it should only be screened to people with an intimate knowledge of the show. So I went back, saw two different stage adaptations of the show and then watched the movie for a second time. That second viewing confirmed my initial suspicions: that Marshall’s staging of this material is just God awful on its own terms.
A lowly baker (James Corden) and his loving wife (Emily Blunt) learn that he’s the victim of a curse placed on his family by a spiteful witch (Meryl Streep) that has left them unable to have a child. The witch agrees to lift the curse if the two of them can procure a laundry list of special items for her that belong to some famous literary characters that all happen to be in the darkest forest near their village at the same time. They have to get the white cow from Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of Jack and the Beanstalk fame, the now golden slipper of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), a lock of hair from Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and the cape from Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford).
It’s disorienting how quickly Marshall gets going and how sped up and needlessly condensed everything becomes in the early going. Marshall launches immediately into the musical numbers and never lets up, forgetting to ever once establish any of the characters beyond their designated plot points and unique quirks. There’s no investment whatsoever. It’s just a bunch of ugly looking, dimly lit, terribly shot stuff popping in and out of the frame. It’s chaotic and not fun in the slightest. It’s practically whiplash inducing and almost barbaric in its attempts to bludgeon the audience with sub-Tim Burton and Gore Verbinski levels of whimsy.
The humour of the stage play, which is meant to be sardonic and playful, comes across as mean and desperate here. Once all of the characters have been introduced here, I had already checked out. They’re so selfish, bumbling, and thinly drawn that I had no desire to spend any more time with them. It probably set a record for the fastest I have mentally checked out of a movie this year. A second re-watch did them no favours in hindsight. Marshall is so content to follow the “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” style of making a musical that he never remotely gives a damn to give these admittedly talented performers anything outside of their one-dimensional characters to work with. It’s like watching some of the greatest talents Hollywood and the UK has to offer drowning in quicksand for more than two hours.
Not everyone suffers needlessly, though. Corden and Blunt do their best to salvage some sort of humanity from their characters, with Blunt even eliciting a bit of sympathy in the first half of the film. Streep adequately throws herself into the villain role, and she’s probably the most likable thing in the film. Mauzy stands out because Rapunzel might be the only truly sympathetic character in the film, and the actress does a nice job of trying to flesh something out. But the biggest scene stealer is the normally wooden Chris Pine, who goes full on William Shatner in his portrayal of Cinderalla’s pursuing prince. He’s having an absolute blast, and next to Streep, they’re the only ones who seem to be having an ounce of fun with the material. (And don’t bother asking me about Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf routine. He’s barely in it, a complete overacting distraction, and he isn’t remotely any good.)
Streep, Pine, and under-utilized supporting performances from Christine Baranski (as Cinderella’s evil Stepmother) and Tracey Ullman (as Jack’s mother) show that there’s a certain degree to which this material has to go over the top to work, and it shows Marhsall’s shortcomings as a director that he never encourages the rest of his cast to go that far. There’s a certain level of hell for filmmakers that can make actresses as resplendent and talented as Blunt and Kendrick into bores to watch. It’s almost inexplicable the level of incompetence one has to achieve that.
And for those who know the show, and for people who wish to avoid spoilers, this is where Into the Woods becomes really hard to talk about. For as scattershot as the first half of the film is, at least it’s kinetic and not stopping every few moments to catch its breath. I would have preferred that level of faux-enthusiasm when the film’s second half takes over because at the turn of a single major plot twist, it quickly becomes the dullest, most plodding and ponderously unentertaining movie of the year.
The dynamic of the film changes from silly to somewhat serious pretty quickly, but Marshall can’t handle the tonal shift. He stops the car entirely and starts pushing it uphill by himself. Both times I watched the film it was a never ending struggle to stay awake through it. It’s lifeless and visually unarresting because unlike the first half that took place in several different locations, the entire second hour of the film takes place basically on a single, undistinguished looking set. It’s like the first hour was directed by Michael Bay and the second hour was a static shot deleted from an austere Nuri Bilge Ceylan production.
There’s no one to blame for this picture’s failure other than Marshall. Ever since Chicago, he hasn’t progressed as a filmmaker. He has only gotten worse, and speaking as a fan of musicals in general, he has become a scourge on the genre. He can’t handle characterization, nuance, or even spectacle. He can’t even keep simple continuity straight. If you try and keep track of characters breaking established rules of the universe, you would go mad well before the halfway point.
Into the Woods is what you get when you give the keys to a major production to someone who clearly can’t handle it. Just wait for it to come back around to a local stage instead of going to the movies for it. I have a hard time believing that even a community theatre or a high school could do much worse of a botch job than this.