Into the Woods is not a movie that Disney should have made. And that’s not to say it’s a bad film by any stretch. In fact, at times it’s a damned good one, a funny, slyly bawdy, and ultimately faithful take on Stephen Sondheim’s beloved musical. But that “slyly” is the operative phrase in this case. As a play, Into the Woods is a surprisingly filthy piece of work, a take on the Grimm fairy tales of old in which the Big Bad Wolf aggressively lusts after Little Red Riding Hood and Prince Charming is more or less just out to get laid. And while it may be unfair to criticize an adaptation against its source material in certain respects, there’s something to Rob Marshall’s take on the musical that’s clearly absent, that halts the film somewhere between its wildly fun opening half and its sometimes leaden second. It’s the subversive spirit of the show, one that’s truncated in translation.
But, to reiterate: for a while, Into the Woods is wildly fun. Starting off with the classic prologue, an infectiously catchy round that also speeds through the film’s necessary exposition at a welcome clip, Woods establishes its universe of skewed storybook heroes. There’s the goodly Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who just want to have a child and can’t seem to conceive. They find help, of a dubious sort, from the Witch (Meryl Streep), who tells them that they’ll have the perfect child if they can put together key ingredients for a potion. The Witch has her own set of troubles related to her daughter, the increasingly curious Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who just wants to get out of her tower. Then there’s Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wants to go to the ball, but can’t bring herself to commit to the doting Prince (Chris Pine). And there’s the aforementioned Little Red (Lilla Crawford), who wants to get to her grandmother’s house despite the sinister advances of the Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who wants to sell his family’s last mildly valuable cow so that he and his mother (Tracey Ullman) can make ends meet.
At its best, Into the Woods subverts its well-known stories with glee, and to great effect. Pine’s prince is less a charmer than a lecherous cad in the guise of one, and his duet on “Agony” is a high point for the film as a whole. He careens over waterfalls while loudly declaring his anguish over not being able to have any woman he wants whenever he wants her, and his Cinderella is less an aloof, doe-eyed innocent than a young woman struggling with her own inability to accept her worth in the face of a demanding royalty. On “Stay With Me”, Streep channels a mother’s angst and anxieties over letting her sheltered young daughter into the world, even as she remains oblivious to how repressive her methods of child rearing are. It captures the spirit of James Lapine’s book, the notion that even the most idyllic heroes have their own specific problems and woes. It’s the universality that makes the play such an enduring work.
But then, too often, and especially in the latter 45 minutes or so, Into the Woods’ inability to commit to its own inherent darkness ends up selling it short. A ballad like “No One Is Alone”, much like the ultimate consequences of some of the film’s many simultaneous narrative threads, ends up feeling diminished due to the film’s ultimate unwillingness to go to the truly dark places of Sondheim’s creation. As a result, the exchanges between the Wolf and Little Red feel shortchanged, to say the very least, and at least one onscreen demise registers less as a tragic moment than as a confusing cutaway that’ll leave audiences wondering exactly where they went. And once the fairy tales are over and the whole thing begins to collapse in on itself, Into the Woods doesn’t so much find a way to bring its stories together as it hobbles to the finish line, sustained by its committed performances but still missing the necessary bite to really make any of it linger.
Again, to a point, Into the Woods is a lot of fun. That sounds like hollow praise given the general tone of this review, to be sure, but such is the contradiction that the film offers. The performances all land somewhere between good and great, save for Depp’s vamping Wolf, who at least doesn’t show up enough to derail the proceedings. In particular, Blunt turns in a fantastic performance as the Baker’s Wife, deliberately given no further name and left alone in the woods just long enough to wonder if there’s more to life than being precisely that. That’s the thing about Into the Woods: it’s all more than competently handled, and until the film weighs itself down with attempting to inject pathos but without following any of its darker underpinnings to any sort of meaningful or lasting place, it’s a good time. But something’s missing. In so many words, a film that sets out to dazzle you only leaves you wishing for more.