Musicals are a tricky genre in modern-day Hollywood. In most settings, it’s odd for people to suddenly, randomly burst into song and dance. See the new version of Annie for how it can go horribly wrong. But a musical married to a fairy tale setting? Those films can still work, as evidenced by Disney’s Tangled and Frozen. Considering how Disney’s approaching those stories, along with updating some of their classic fairy tale films through Maleficent and the upcoming Cinderella, it makes sense for the studio to also tackle an adaptation of Broadway’s Into the Woods.
What makes Into the Woods a fascinating piece, and what makes it fit with Disney’s current approach to fairy tale films, is how it tweaks multiple classic fairy tales. The central story, as much as there is one, concerns an original story about a baker and his wife, who have been cursed to not have children by a witch. In order to reverse the curse, they must gather objects in the woods that happen to coincide with four different classic fairy tale stories. Each central character in the other stories also has their own desire, and their interactions eventually lead to them attaining their goals. But the film continues past that point, raising a warning in response: “Be careful what you wish for.”
The original Broadway musical has retained its popularity since its premiere, and it’s easy to see why. Stephen Sondheim is a master of musical theatre, and Into the Woods finds him on top of his game. For its transition to film, the musical does have some relatively minor cuts made that might raise the ire of Broadway purists, particularly in the film’s second half. The film largely keeps the musical intact, though. So to stand out, the film needs to achieve success with its cast and direction.
On the casting front, the film largely aces its selections. Aside from Tony-winner James Corden, the film works with more notable film actors than Broadway performers, but it works for the different medium. The core cast, which also includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick, have solid vocal chops, and they’re able to sell performances more suited for the big screen. Kendrick in particular shines here. She’s a strong actress in general, but she proves that she’s exceptional when it comes to musically-based films here. She’s paired well here by Chris Pine’s Prince, which may be the best brash role of his in a year where he excelled at them.
Corden and Blunt are the film’s best pairing. While both have strengths in scenes where they’re apart, they have a chemistry that makes their relationship feel more grounded than the romances that pop up during the film. Because of their more central roles in the film, they’re also put in scenes more often with Streep, who is thankfully giving a much richer performance here than in her last musical, Mamma Mia.
The one arguable weak link, casting-wise, is Johnny Depp. This may have more to do with a general sense of fatigue with Depp. His schtick is getting old, and it’s a good thing that his character only takes up a small portion of the film.
Speaking of weak links, the direction is a bit of a disappointment. Rob Marshall has shown that he can direct a musical number with spark, thanks to his Oscar-winning Chicago. Here, though, his work lacks that spark. While it may be harder to determine what musical number(s) should qualify as “Big” numbers when nearly the entire production is sung, there’s little to set the numbers apart visually. And there are standout musical numbers here. Take “Agony,” which features both of the film’s princes in an escalating number. The performances sell the number well, but more inspired directing choices would have only strengthened it further.
There’s also the issue of CGI, though I honestly don’t know if Marshall or Disney should take the blame here. There’s something off about it that reminded me of Maleficent, and that I’ve also noticed in the trailer for Cinderella. In any case, it’s not top-tier CGI work, and for me, at least, it proved distracting.
These issues, though, are not overwhelming, and did not significantly detract from my appreciation for the film. Even if Marshall’s direction leaves something to be desired, he did well with casting, and the source material itself is rich enough to make this well worth seeing.