I had such a mixed reaction to Into the Woods, the latest Rob Marshall-directed musical adaptation, that it’s hard to really know how to start my review, let alone how to conclude it.
So, I’ll start by answering the most important question that you probably have about this film. I think sometimes that film snobs like me tend to forget that, for most people, it’s just a question of whether or not the film is worth the time, effort, and money that it will take to sit through it. In other words, having seen Into the Woods, do I recommend it?
Yes, I do. Well, kind of anyway. As I said before, it’s complicated. But, for the most part, I enjoyed Into the Woods. The audience that I saw it with (and the theater was absolutely packed) seemed to really love the film and there was even a smattering of applause at the end of it. Into the Woods is a crowd-pleaser. It’s a well-made film. It’s perfectly cast. It’s full of funny moments. The costumes are absolutely to die for. (I’m totally in love with the gown that Anna Kendrick gets to wear to the ball.) Meryl Streep will probably get an Oscar nomination. Chris Pine deserves to be given a lot more awards consideration than he’s received. It’s such a good film and yet…
And yet, I never loved Into the Woods like I thought I would. I watched it and I kept thinking about how much I, of all people, should have loved this film. I love musicals. I love spectacle. I love fairy tales. I love revisionism. I love satire. I love handsome, charming men, like the one played by Chris Pine. In a perfect world, Anna Kendrick would be my best friend and we’d spend all of our time going to wine tastings and watching Lifetime movies. Into the Woods was full of everything that I should have loved and the final song actually brought tears to my mismatched eyes but I never quite came to love the film. Something was just off.
Before I go any further, I should admit that my reaction may have been influenced by outside factors. On the one hand, all of the Bowman girls are together right now for the holidays and I loved the fact that, as I watched Into the Woods, I was watching it with my sisters and all four of us were sharing in the experience. Really, that’s the ideal way to watch something like Into The Woods. This is the type of movie that was specifically made to be watched and appreciated by large groups, preferably made up of people who understand and appreciate the conventions of musical theater.
On the other hand, we had the most obnoxious woman ever sitting directly behind us. She laughed through the entire film, regardless of whether anything funny was happening on screen or not. (The film features a lot of comedy but it grows progressively darker with each passing minute.) It wasn’t just that she wouldn’t stop laughing as much as it was that her laugh was so insincere. You could tell that she was laughing because she wanted everyone to be impressed with the fact that she “got” the film. But ultimately, all she did was get on everyone’s nerves with her inability to understand that we weren’t there to listen to her dry heave of a laugh. We were there because we wanted to see Into the Woods. The experience was not meant to be about her. It was about the movie.
As for what the film is about, it’s an adaptation of the famous Stephen Sondheim musical in which the Baker (James Corben) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) attempt to break the spell of a not-quite-evil-but-definitely-bad-tempered witch (Meryl Streep). By bringing the witch several things (the majority of which can be found in the woods that sit right outside their village), they can lift the curse that has made it impossible for the Baker’s Wife to get pregnant. Along the way, they run into everyone from the witch’s daughter, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) to Jack the Giant Slayer (Daniel Huttlestone) to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) to the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Deep, playing up the sexual subtext of the story of Little Red Riding Hood) to not one but two charming princes (played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen)! Into the Woods starts by poking gentle fun at the fairy tales of old and then gets darker and darker until, by the end of the film, only a few characters are left alive.
It’s a great idea and it’s gorgeously executed but yet the film itself never quite makes the transition from being good to being great. Towards the end of the musical, the surviving characters sing about missing their loved ones and it brought tears to my eyes but that was one of the few moments when the film itself actually made an emotional connection. Otherwise, I spent a lot of time feeling curiously detached from what was happening on screen.
Thinking about Into The Woods, it’s hard not to compare it to 2012’s version of Les Miserables. In Les Miserables, all of the songs were recorded live on set. And, for all the unfair criticism that Russell Crowe received for his singing, this brought a definite raw power and immediacy to the entire production. What some of the actors may have lacked in conventional singing ability, they made up for with the sheer power of their performances. In Into The Woods, the majority of the songs were pre-recorded. Everyone sounds almost too perfect. There’s none of the vitality or danger that came with Les Miserables or even Rob Marshall’s previous musical, Nine.
(As far as casting, direction, and almost everything else is concerned, Into The Woods is a hundred times better than Nine but it still never manages to produce a moment as vibrantly silly and memorable as Kate Hudson’s performance of Cinema Italiano.)
Into the Woods does have a uniformly excellent cast. Everyone — even the much-criticized Johnny Depp — does a wonderful job with their role. Meryl Streep has been getting all of the awards-consideration, largely because she’s Meryl Streep and, if she could get a nomination for giving that performance in August: Osage County, then she can probably get a nomination for anything. (And don’t get me wrong — Meryl’s great and all but there’s still a part of me that would have loved to have seen what a less self-enamored performer — like Marion Cotillard or Helen Mirren — could have done with the role of the Witch.) But, to me, the film’s best two performances really came from Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine. Whether pausing to strike a heroic pose or casually trying to seduce a woman who he meets in the woods or explaining that he’s been raised to be charming and not sincere, Chris Pine is never less than outstanding.
So, to get back to the only question that really matters, did I like Into The Woods? I did but I did not love it, which is unfortunate because I really wanted to love it.
However, overall, I recommend Into The Woods.
Just don’t watch it alone.
Or with anyone who has an annoying laugh.