Review: “Into The Woods” Hits All The High Notes (Mostly)
Title: Into the Woods
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: James Lapine (screenplay), Stephen Sondheim (musical), and James Lapine (musical)
Principal Cast: Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Chris Pine, and Meryl Streep
Thus far 2014 hasn’t been a very good year for musicals. Annie turned out to be disposable on a good day and horrible on a bad one. Now we’re onto the other big musical of the year, Into the Woods, based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim. I’ve never seen the musical in question, though, but I have heard of it and heard good things. However, as Sweeney Todd in 2007 demonstrated, Sondheim musicals don’t always translate very well on screen. I’ve been keeping an eye on Into the Woods, and I’ve been trying to keep my expectations reasonable since I was very let down last time.
Into the Woods has some pacing issues, to the point where I could pinpoint where act one ended and the act two began in the stage production, but several strong performances and it’s unique aesthetic make up for it.
Into the Woods takes place in a fairytale world where several main characters of the classic stories all share the same world. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is fighting with her evil stepmother (Christine Baranski) to go to the festival so she can meet the handsome prince (Chris Pine). Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is on a mission to sell their lone cow to save him and his mother from starvation. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is on her way through the woods to see her grandmother. A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) discover that they are unlucky having a child because of a curse put on his family by a witch (Meryl Streep). She tells the baker he has three days to collect three items that will cause everyone’s stories to cross.
Into the Woods, despite what some of the promotional material is pushing forward, is a musical in every sense of the world. There isn’t much in the way of spoken dialogue so the movie really makes or breaks itself on the voices of its main cast. It’s very fortunate that this production has managed to find some serious talent. After Pitch Perfect a few years ago, people knew that Anna Kendrick had a voice, but she really lets it shine here. She is a stage actor by trade and it shows in her vocal performances. She has one of the strongest voices in the cast, but Lilla Crawford, who plays Red Riding Hood, does a great job of keeping up as well. For such a young actress she has a fantastic voice, and she is going to be someone to keep an eye on as the years go on. Emily Blunt, whom I fell in love with this summer during the underrated Edge of Tomorrow, surprised me with what a lovely voice she has as well.
James Corden, who plays the Baker, also has a great voice and he is immediately sympathetic to someone carrying the sins of his father. I’ve never seen him in anything before, but this is going to be a role that pushes him to the forefront of cinema. Daniel Huttlestone, who plays Jack, is also a very talented young actor that has a wonderful voice. This is only his second major role after he was Gavroche in Les Misérables, and we should expect great things from him. The one that surprised me the most was Chris Pine, though. I often say that Pine lives up to his name (as in “he’s very wooden” because I think I’m hilarious :), but this is the most charisma I’ve ever seen him have before. His voice isn’t anything to write home about, but his rendition of “Agony” with Billy Magnussen is so over the top and well done I couldn’t help but love it.
There are really only two weak points in the entire cast. One of them doesn’t have much more than ten minutes of screentime, and the other kind of “kneecaps” the production. The one that has hardly any screentime is Johnny Depp as the The Wolf. I spoke to a few people who were worried about this movie after his disastrous performance in Sweeney Todd, but he has exactly one song, more on that in a moment, and then he’s gone. The only weak point, at least voice wise, is Meryl Streep. I love Streep and think she is one of the best, but I’ve never been that impressed with her vocal performances. She’s fine when she’s acting but once she is singing she isn’t very good. Not bad, but compared to the stronger vocal members of the cast she stands out. That could be a personal preference, and the way she goes for broke in the speaking roles more than makes up for it.
The songs themselves are instantly likable and fun to listen to.There is one that really made me uncomfortable, though, and that was Depp’s song as The Wolf. Maybe it was just the way Depp was playing the role, like I said I haven’t seen the stage production, but in the movie it comes off as really creepy and not in the way the filmmakers intended. I believe the song is supposed to be scary, since The Wolf is talking about eating Little Red, but between the way Depp is dressed up and the way he is skulking around, it came off as more of an anthem for pedophillia. It made me uncomfortable, and it made me extremely glad that the Wolf’s scenes were very limited.
The major problem I had with the movie is the pacing. I made sure to clarify this with someone who has seen the stage production, but I could practically tell when we switched from act one to act two of the play. This wouldn’t have been a problem if this break didn’t come when the movie was two thirds of the way over. I understand that this was probably done intentionally in the play, it comes at a very interesting moment that subverts the genre which I loved, but it ended up making the final third of the movie feel very strange. I have a feeling that a lot was cut from the second half, which is a shame because that is the part of the movie that I found really interesting. Like I said this is the moment where Into the Woods makes good on the fact that it is a story about fairytales and what that means for a narrative. I would have liked to see more of it instead of the more cliched moments beforehand.
There is also a side story involving Rapunzel, played by Mackenzie Mauzy, and the younger brother of Pine’s Prince, played by Billy Magnussen, that felt extremely superfluous. I have a feeling their story was much more fleshed out in the play, but they vanish just before the final act and are never mentioned again. They get a fair amount of screentime as well, but nearly everything about them feels a little disjointed from the rest of the plot. I’m not sure if cutting them entirely would have been a good idea, but the way they just vanish and are never spoken of again sort of bothered me.
Into the Woods is by far the stronger of the two “winter time” musicals that are being released. Despite the fact that the pacing will really throw some people off, and maybe Streep’s voice, the rest of the cast more than makes up for it. Even if musicals aren’t usually something you enjoy, I’d still recommend Into the Woods because it is a unique experience and a lot of fun.