Musical theater as a film genre is a rarefied thing in our day-and-age. Musicals lack the mass appeal they deserve and only come out every few years during the Holiday season in an attempt to offer a more unique family movie-going experience. This though has not been the case of late what with films like “Sweeney Todd” and “Les Miserables” offering long and not very child-friendly experiences that, although released in December, do little to improve upon that holiday spirit. “Into the Woods” tries to break that mold with a completely unique amalgamation of classic folk tales spun in a web of over-the-top complexity and the fun and furiously fast lyrics for which Stephen Sondheim is well known. As a whole piece, the production is a marvelous adaptation of a silly and suddenly dark book and lyrics and visually it is nothing short of spectacular. The biggest problem with “Into the Woods” is, frankly, its source material.
The most obvious trouble is the quite jarring shift 90 minutes in to a much different woods for its final quarter. Not only is the lighting so obviously darker as to almost seem the lighting designer wishes to knock us on our heads but the characters change. The rumor while writing this piece is that Stephen Sondheim wrote his one acte musical and thought it a masterpiece; this would have ended the musical at the point where the film seems tightly knit with a bow on top and happiness all around. Sadly, as the rumor goes, Sondheim was forced into making it a full-scale two acte musical so, to spit on those enforces and unfortunately to cut off his nose to spite his face in terms of sacrificing the overall quality of the show, he wrote a much grimmer finale that fails to fit well into the scheme of the rest of the show.
The original book is perfect in its way of interweaving disparate tales into one great story but the shift does turn everything on its head, from characters to audience alike. Thematically it seems almost a different show all together which is the problem. The blending of the two actes is stiff at best. As before stated, the lighting is so different and darker to be laughably overdone. And Emily Blunt’s turn as the Baker’s Wife goes to places never built up to early on. Blunt’s voice is fittingly magical as she puts in one of the film’s best performances but her transition from wanting a child with her husband to being more than fine with infidelity doesn’t make sense with the characters introduced at the films beginning. The beautiful song “It Takes Two” is a gorgeously cute duet between James Corden’s Baker and his wife about how the Woods is a place for second chances, a realm where their once stale marriage actually is being revitalized. Yet, in the second half the Woods becomes a place where anything is possible as it is a perfect place to hide any misdeeds. So, thematically, the Woods changes in its influence on the characters completely. The film feels like two very different ideas haphazardly smashed together.
Another flaw of the piece is that, although a beautiful musical as a whole, there are few actual songs in the show. It feels like every other song is a reprise of the titular “Into the Woods” prologue song as those three words are repeated maybe a thousand times throughout. Songs such as “It Takes Two” and “Agony” stand out as the film’s best to offer.
Daniel Huttlestone though steals the show, yet again, as Jack. Just as he does in 2012’s “Les Miserables,” Huttlestone’s orphan-esque brazen attitude is lovable, relate-able, and a joy to watch onscreen. Visually, giving the Wolf a more Tex Avery appearance is an exciting choice but the use of Johnny Depp for the role feels not only a waste but a sad attempt at filling an already bulbous cast with another unnecessary big name. Others, such as Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, and Lucy Punch, are fun but under utilized. Meryl Streep though is amazing and proves once and for all that she can sing, not letting Abba and the dreadful “Mamma Mia!” define her singing career. Finally, Anna Kendrick is everything lovable and cute with an amazing voice yet seems a little more “Pitch Perfect” than Cinderella, offering a hipster-ish spin on a character that doesn’t need it.
Overall, Rob Marshall’s musical does Sondheim’s piece much justice. Even the moments that don’t fit are faintly masked by beautiful singing and breathtaking visuals. Let’s just hope Marshall’s next romp into Broadway fare is a better pick.