Into the Woods
A Disney musical based on a fairy tale (or in this case, many fairy tales) would seem to be a slam dunk. But “Into the Woods” is an uneven, sloppy dip that’s like being lost in the woods without a trail of breadcrumbs.
The plot is as labyrinthine as it is silly, so I’ll only say its narrative hub is the story of a baker and his wife (James Corden and a fantastic Emily Blunt), who want for a child but to no effect thus far. Soon they learn a witch (Meryl Streep, trying too hard) cursed the baker years ago to get back at his family for fouling her garden.
But the witch isn’t a total B-word; she offers to overturn the curse if the baker and his wife can provide her a series of items within three days and the coming blue moon. Totally by coincidence, these items play an integral part in other fairy tales, which are going on all around them at that moment. Without getting too specific, Red Riding Hood, Jack (as in “and the Beanstalk”) and Cinderella all play an important role.
Also, the witch herself is the mother of Rapunzel, which we learn during the movie, because why not?
That’s not to say this is a bad setup; on the contrary, it’s a good idea. But the execution is one with lackluster songs (Sondheim or not, I couldn’t bear any of them, even the one I acutally liked; more later), over-the-top acting and a general dullness.
The cast is strong, and early on there are moments of fun. In addtion to Streep, Corden and Blunt, Anna Kendrick plays Cinderella and Chris Pine is her handsome prince. Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski make memorable appearances, and Johnny Depp plays (who else?) the Big Bad Wolf in a small role. Most memorable among these are Pine, who owns the film early when he does a duet with
Eugene Rapunzel’s Prince (seriously, that’s his name in the cast; he’s played by Billy Magnussen). The song isn’t as catchy as it could be, but is easily the apex of the movie.
The first half of the film is dominated by the baker and his wife searching for these items, finding and losing them, then finding them again. Then, once the film comes to a natural resolution … it doesn’t end, but shifts narratives involving one of Jack’s giants, and the movie falls off the rails. At one point, a character who has been heroic up to that point abruptly and clumsily falls off a cliff (literally) and dies.
I really wanted to like “Into the Woods.” There are characters I like being played by actors I really enjoy. But the whole movie felt thrown together to capitalize on the success of the “Shrek” movies, offbeat adaptations like “Wicked,” and, maybe, even to create a “universe” a la the Marvel movies or the upcoming Universal Monsters universe. The result was a tattered, flabby movie that needed more work. It’s based on a stage production; maybe it should have stayed there.