Some good performances and a few standout songs fail to bring screen magic to Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 stage musical. Ryan Pollard takes a look…
Based upon the hit 1986 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (the latter provides the new screenplay), Into the Woods is about a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), both of whom are childless as a result of the curse of a once-beautiful witch (Meryl Streep).
Obviously, because the original musical had a much darker and adult edge to it, there had to be a sort of sanitisation process in adapting it for the screen in order to appeal to Disney’s family-targeted audience. But, Marshall’s revisionist fairytale mash-up only ends up being like Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves with Monty Python style songs, which sounds more intriguing than what’s portrayed on screen. The stage musical may date back to 1986, but the film is post-Enchanted, and there’s nothing here to match the musical wit and edge of Kevin Lima’s contemporary fariy tale.
On the good front, Meryl Streep, who’s recently been nominated for an Oscar for her performance, is undeniably terrific as the Wicked Witch as she’s certainly giving it some much-needed oomph and she’s clearly having tremendous fun relishing the role. She also manages to brilliantly capture the two ends of the performances with the dishevelled and manic hag in the first half contrasting with the more calm and controlled beauty in the second. Emily Blunt is a particular standout as the Baker’s Wife as she is absolutely charming, witty and laugh-out-loud funny. Blunt can be a warming screen presence, but she’s also compelling when portraying the sadness in this woman who’s a bit adrift searching for what will fulfil her. Another standout is Anna Kendrick as a yearning, but unsure Cinderella as she too provides great warmth and humour.
James Corden is a good comic actor as demonstrated through his previous works (The History Boys, The Wrong Mans, Doctor Who), but here, he is somewhat struggling as, even though his performance is fine, he can’t match up to the quality of Emily Blunt or Meryl Streep. Chris Pine is unbelievably hammy and OTT as Cinderella’s Prince and his singing sounds like a cross between Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia and Gerard Butler showing off on another talk show. However, Johnny Depp is all over the shop as the Wolf, despite not being on screen for very long. He’s uncharacteristically embarrassing as he looks as if he’d wandered of the set of a (presumably much darker) Tim Burton movie that was happening next door and has got lost in the hands of a lightweight director. Plus, his Anthony Newley-style singing and mannerisms brought back the horrifying memories of Captain Jack Sparrow.
The songs are somewhat of a mixed bag; occasionally performed adequately and exceptionally, yet sometimes performed in unmemorable fashion. The one song that particularly stands out being the parodically awful, yet extremely funny, “Agony” being performed with shirt-ripping gusto by Pine and Billy Magnussen, and wouldn’t look too out of place in a Spandau Ballet pop video. The visuals are occasionally arresting, yet at the same time, slightly naff and reminds me of the creakiness of the terrible Doctor Who 2011 Christmas Special, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. Its smug sub-Bettelheim “careful what you dream” message becomes trite and far too on the nose, and the explanatory voiceover narration incessant.
Overall, Into the Woods is a brilliant idea that’s disappointingly realised. With the exception of some of the songs (mostly “Agony”) and the performances from the three female leads, the film is unfortunately creaky and frankly, Tim Burton might’ve made this into a much better film.