This year we get two musicals for the Christmas season — with this, Rob Marshall’s film of Into the Woods, being far and away the more anticipated and certainly more respectable — not to mention boasting an all-star cast. And the results are fine, though rarely inspired. Even bearing in mind that Into the Woods isn’t one of my favorite scores (a lot of it sounds like recycled Sweeney Todd to me), I think the reason for the film not being more than just good has less to do with the material than it has to do with the direction. I’ve seen every theatrical feature Marshall has made and have liked each of them — yes, even Nine (2009) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2011) — while they were on-screen. And then they simply evaporated from my mind — except for Chicago (2002), which is not in its favor. I suspect this will suffer the same fate. I also suspect that it will delight fans of the show because it takes few liberties, and it will do the same for fans of the performers — except Johnny Depp admirers hoping for more than his five minutes of screen time. (Granted, Johnny Depp as a pedophilic wolf in a zoot suit is a sight to behold.)
Those who were worried about early claims that the film version would be Disneyfied out of recognition can rest easy — more or less. The softenings — and they exist — are largely insignificant, though I think they do conspire to make the ending feel rushed and perfunctory. Even so, this is still pretty dark stuff, and despite its PG rating it isn’t really aimed at children. Whether it is suitable for them depends entirely on the child. Since the greater point of this material is about the loss of innocence and the debunking of the happily-ever-after mindset, a certain degree of worldliness is perhaps required.
If you don’t know, the story takes several well-known fairy tales and has them cross paths — even collide with each other — in the woods of the title. (In some ways, the dichotomy of the fairy tale town and the magical — if unsafe — woods evokes something of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) As noted, this is all intended as a debunking of the tales — almost a dark spoof of them — and that really wasn’t all that daring in 1986 when the show first appeared, and it’s even less so now in our postmodern snarky world. It’s not novelty that makes the concept work, but the slightly unsettling darker undercurrent that’s always present that comes to the forefront in the latter parts of the story. That there is also a degree of what feels like genuine magic in the mix certainly doesn’t hurt.
The film — especially as a version of the play — has much to recommend it. The very fact that a great deal of it takes place in real — or soundstage — settings keeps it anchored and not awash in cartoonish CGI. Even a number of the effects are practical or basic cinematic sleight of hand, which is refreshing. That such things as grandma’s house seem pretty artificial matters less than the fact that you feel like you could touch it. There is, however, a downside to this. All too often the film seems too much like canned theater — a mere recording of a stage event. The line between theatrical and stagey is a thin one, and Marshall seems unable to tell where it is.
Even so, it’s a solid work, and the performers are generally excellent — though I personally think two singing children is pushing it. If I had to single out a performance, I’d probably have to go with the obvious choice — Meryl Streep’s witch, and I am not one who believes Streep can do no wrong. It’s not just that she would make the whole thing worth the price of the ticket. It’s also the realization that when she takes her final leave all the air goes out of the movie, and you’re just waiting for it to wrap up the story. Should you see it? If you like musicals, yes. If you like this particular musical, most definitely. Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
Starts Thursday at Carolina Cinemas and other (as yet undetermined) theaters.