Stephen Sondheim’s successful stage musical, which originally debuted way back in 1986, has finally made its way onto the big screen, under the gargantuan Disney umbrella and sporting a host of famous faces belting out its simultaneously chirpy and dark songs.
The whole conceit is to take all those fairytales we know through and through and intertwine them with one another. There’s the handmaiden Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), living with her evil stepmother and vile stepsisters, desperate to attend the palace ball where she’ll meet but resist Prince Charming (Chris Pine); Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) who trades his family cow for magic beans; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) on her way to visit her granny in the woods; Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) who’s trapped in a doorless tower… You get the idea.
At the centre of the plot are a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are struggling for money and desperate for a child that they’re unable to conceive. One day they’re approached by a neighbouring witch (Meryl Streep) who sets them a task of collecting an item from each of the other fairytale characters which will both give them a child and lift the curse that has left the witch old and ugly.
It’s a great premise for a big, bombastic spectacle and even more intriguing as a musical. The trouble is that, for all its own gothic glamour and undeniable bravado, there’s something messy and even distracting about the approach to how it mixes its music with the plot and characters.
It’s sung-through, which means most of the dialogue is sung rather than just purely spoken. Now, as Les Miserables showed a few years ago, the idea of taking such a path on the road can work if the songs are distinctive, emotional and passionate enough. But rather that feeling like a musical path with individual songs along the way, Into the Woods just blends them all together into a single bland, one note (pardon the pun) song that goes on forever; it only has a two hour runtime but feels a hell of a lot longer than that.
The cast is where you’ll find most of the pleasures to be had in watching this film. Corden is spirited and committed as the baker, perhaps because he has the most to prove amongst a cast of Hollywood heavyweights; Pine doesn’t take himself too seriously as the Prince – his “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” is a quote highlight – while Streep is spectacular, clearly having a lot of fun as the acid-tongued witch popping up every now and then to steal the show.
Johnny Depp is technically in the film but those expecting a repeat performance of Alice in Wonderland will be disappointed, with his glorified cameo as the Wolf serving merely as a distraction only there to draw audience attention rather than add anything meaningful to the mix (and just reminding us how much better the Sondheim effect was done on film in Sweeney Todd).
It lacks real human emotion in spite of, or perhaps exactly because of, the characters constantly proclaiming what they feel. Musicals are, of course, over-the-top by nature but there’s a difference between being theatrical and just obvious. These songs may have worked on the stage (admittedly I’m a total newcomer to the whole Into the Woods phenomenon) but they’re tuneless and largely unmemorable on the big-screen. And the plot they populate never quite manages to gel together the hodgepodge of fairytale ideas in the manner it would like, coming off as stilted and forced rather than the fluid concoction that I imagine was intended.
All of that is not to say Into the Woods is without its pleasures as there are genuine moments of wit, clever musical timing and bewitching visuals to stop it well short of a time-wasting disaster; the song “Your Fault” is the film’s catchy crowning glory. But the fact that there are flashes of brilliance makes the overall drab, repetitive and clunky musical experience all the more disappointing.