The problem isn’t the adaptation, not particularly; some of it is simplified and streamlined (particularly in that second act), but that sort of thing is par for the course, and most of the witty lyrics and dizzyingly complex song construction remain intact. But there’s an odd sense, in the style, framing, and sound mix (particularly early on) that the movie is yelling at the viewer, pummeling them into submission.
As a result, the script is played, but the nuances are missed. Marshall seems to understand, for example, that there is a psycho-sexual subtext to Little Red Riding Hood’s description of her interest in the Big Bad Wolf (“Though scary is exciting,” she sings), but he doesn’t know what to do with it — it just lies there, like Jack’s giant after his fall, a moment that occurs, is regarded, and is discarded. (The sequence is done no favors by Johnny Depp’s cringe-worthy turn as the wolf, yet another bit of funny-mustache-and-hat acting that now plays like an ‘80s one-hit wonder doing a particularly sad set at your neighborhood dive bar; nobody’s having a good time, and the sooner it’s over, the better.)
That goes double for the emotional and intellectual complexity of the second act, which is where the text gets really tricky, and playing it demands no half-measures. But Marshall barely punctures the surface, treating the turns less as a dialectic between fantasy and reality than as a bunch of real bummers, man. Some of this stuff plays, and beautifully — the heartbreaking song the Baker (James Corden) sings to his baby, the circular closing number, the song of confusion (“Any Moment”) from the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt, the movie’s MVP). But when it works, it’s primarily due to the Herculean efforts of the players, particularly Blunt, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, and the surprisingly funny Chris Pine.
Couple Marshall’s pedestrian direction with sets and costumes seemingly meant to feel handmade but that instead looking rinky-dink (and often downright ugly), and Into the Woods comes off less as abhorrent than miscalculated. Chicago’s modestly clever flights of fancy aside, Marshall is a decidedly traditional (some would say dull — and they would be right) stager of movie musicals. If they really wanted to capture the spirit of this one, they should’ve gone for a less obvious choice; Hedwig’s John Cameron Mitchell, say, or Stage Fright’s Jerome Sable. Then again, it’s Disney, and it’s Christmas, and if there were ever an equation for playing it safe, that’s it.
Into the Woods is out Christmas Day in wide release.