"I wish... more than anything..."
In the past decade, the screen has only been graced with two Sondheim musical film adaptations: 2007's Sweeney Todd and 2014's Into the Woods. The good news is that while both of these films take large liberties with the source material, they both function as movies very nicely. While Sweeney Todd knows what it is through and through, however, Into the Woods suffers a bit of an identity crisis. From what I've found, the Broadway musical is split into two distinct acts; one involves familiar fairy tales being spun together and playing out the way they traditionally do. In the second act, the characters' wishes are not all they expected them to be. It's sort of a "what happens next" for Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. I absolutely love that concept, and while it's still there in the film version, there's definitely something lost in translation.
The film opens with a fantastic opening prologue that establishes the characters, their desires, and the reasons that each of them have to go "into the woods." We meet Jack (Daniel Huttleston) and his Mother (Tracey Ullman) from Jack and the Beanstalk, the girl from Little Red Riding Hood (Lilia Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and new characters in the form of a childless Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt). The couple discovers that a Witch (Meryl Streep) cast a spell over their family after the Baker's father stole from her garden many years ago. The curse prevents the couple from having the child they so desire, and in order to lift the spell, they need to find four things in the woods: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. I think you can see where this is heading. The Baker and his wife meet up with the other fairy tale characters and acquire what they need from Jack, Red Ridding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). Everyone gets what they want, happily every after, yadda yadda.
At this point in the play, that's only the ending to the first half of the story. But in the film, we're an hour and a half into a two hour movie. That last half hour is where the majority of the film's problems lie (something I felt strongly about before even knowing the first thing about the play). Characters die very quickly and without impact (sometimes even clarity), and the sequence of events feels a bit forced so that the film's ultimate message can be expressed: take responsibility for your actions and teach your children to do the same. However, that message gets a bit drowned out by the extensiveness of the classic fairy tale segment and the rushed nature of the aftermath. This is why I said the film has a bit of an identity crisis; if the whole point of the story is explored in the second half, why spend the majority of the film dwelling on the first half of the play when, ultimately, a lot of it doesn't matter? Why focus on so much setup when there is such a drought of payoff? I say this with a heavy heart, because I love so much from that first hour and a half.
The cast is excellent here, with Streep, Kendrick, Blunt, Corden, and everyone else giving great acting as well as singing performances. Johnny Depp has a lot of fun in a small part as Red Riding Hood's Wolf, with his design clearly inspired by Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood. Though he reportedly only did the part as a favor to director Rob Marshall and to Sondheim himself, at least he seems to be having fun. I could listen to this soundtrack for days; Sondheim's lyrics are fun and his orchestrations are gorgeous. It's not as good as West Side Story, or hell, even Sweeney Todd, but it certainly isn't unmemorable. Under the direction of Marshall, the film's fairy tale world is well-developed, but he offers only glimpses of the visual poetry he was able to capture in his electric Chicago. It's as though the film could have been directed by anybody.
Despite being produced by Disney, the I appreciate that film doesn't shy away from complexity or dark themes. Besides the character deaths and the general macabre atmosphere, there are implied instances of self-mutilation, adultery, and even child molestation (in the form of Depp's child stalker-ish Wolf). While I could have done without the latter, it was still surprising that Disney, often infamous for sanitizing classic stories to make them marketable for a family audience, kept in so many adult themes. I also appreciate the commitment the actors have for the material; the sadness in Streep's performance when the Witch looses Rapunzel, the over-the-top mannerisms of the Princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) in the song "Agony," and Kendrick's charming befuddlement during her "On the Steps of the Palace" number are just a few great moments that really linger.
So we have a film a bit at war with itself, but one that ultimately works. Its rushed, last half hour would probably be a deal breaker if everything that preceded it wasn't so damn good. The performances are excellent, the music is great, and the tone is fun and loose while still containing heart. The themes of challenging the traditional celebration of (ironically) Disney-esque happy endings is still ultimately present in the story, even if it's more subdued than it should have been. Would the film have been better at two and a half hours? I can't quite say. I suppose in order to see the potential of Into the Woods fully realized, I'll just have to watch a stage performance.