My first exposure to Into the Woods came as a high school theater student, shuttled in with my fellow drama nerds to the auditorium of a nearby university for a “preview” of their forthcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s Brothers Grimm mash-up. The preview consisted, as such things often do, of half the show — the first act, with the assumption that you’ll be so hooked, you’ll return (and buy a ticket) for the second. But that proved rather a dicey proposition for Woods, whose first conclusion seemed, to us high schoolers, perfectly satisfactory.
It was only years later that I discovered the nose-thumbing subversion of Act II, where Sondheim clobbers the “happily ever after”s of Act I with an avalanche of adultery, regret, disappointment, and death. So, naturally, when I heard that Disney was behind the show’s film adaptation, I assumed they were just doing the first act. That’s not what happened — but what they have done is nearly as detrimental, turning over the text’s complexity and darkness to the empty-husk filmmaking of director Rob Marshall, who quite clearly doesn’t get this thing at all.
Marshall gets a fair amount of shit from film fans, and you have to feel a little bad for him. After all, it’s not really his fault that his debut film Chicago was so wildly over-praised and over-rewarded by an aging Oscar voting pool that was just tickled pink by its throwback qualities (Amos ‘N Andy jokes, even!). But he’s had a bit of a rough go of it ever since, fumbling the adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha, shipwrecking the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and failing badly to recapture the magic of Chicago with the ill-fated Nine. Despite that failure, and because of Chicago’s critical and commercial success, he nonetheless remains Hollywood’s go-to guy for film musical adaptations, which is how we’ve ended up with in these lumpy Woods. It’s not, in any easily describable way at least, a terrible movie. It’s just a woefully forgettable one, staged with all the depth and flair of a halfhearted community theater production.
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.