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At The Picture Show
December 2014

Into the Woods

All the woods a stage

'Into the Woods' adaptation is an ugly, stagy missed opportunity

Into the Woods
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenplay: James Lapine, based on the play by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim
Starring: Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Billy Magnussen and Johnny Depp
Rated PG / 2 hours, 4 minutes
December 25, 2014
(out of four)

When you name your movie after a specific location, you are, in effect, giving that location top billing. Over and above even the A-list movie stars you've attracted to fill it. So that location, whatever it may be, better deliver the goods. Which brings us to Exhibit A: the titular woods from Into the Woods, which serve as both the visual backdrop and narrative centerpiece of this adaptation of the famed Stephen Sondheim musical.

By design of the plot, the woods are full of magic and danger, beauty and horror, and yet as a cinematic locale it sits on the screen inert, barely explored and, too often, barely even noticeable. (Did I mention the movie is called Into the WOODS, and that every story and every character crosses paths within those woods? OK then.) The fact is, the woods are just treated like a set, instead of like a place. The film sees it as nothing more than a spot to stage the action (emphasis on stage), letting it simply recede into the background instead of taking an active role in the story's creation.

This should really come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Rob Marshall, the converted theatre director who, in his movies, has only ever been able to envision his locations as sets, incapable of bring them to life in anything but purely theatrical terms. (I cringe remembering his musical sequences in Nine, in which his idea of how a film director (!) would conceive of his cinematic setpieces was to set them all on a giant empty sound stage.) By definition, the sets in theatrical renditions of Into the Woods are technically just as "stagy" as they are here, but in theatre, imagination fills in the gaps. In movies, with its more fully realized and immersive sets, the effect is different, and Marshall is fully incapable of taking advantage. In the process of adaptation he managed to remove both narrative utility and imagination. (You can see this in particular during many of the musical sequences, which are filled with bland medium shots and close-ups that draw us even more out of the fantasy environment than we already were. At times it's almost like watching a series of taped auditions, so irrelevant are the visual elements.)

It's a tired cliché to say that a place or location in a movie can essentially be like another character (a cliché which has now been permanently eviscerated in my brain, thanks to David Wain's They Came Together), but that doesn't mean it's not ostensibly true. And the truth is, in the right hands, Into the Woods' woods could have made one hell of a gnarly, gothic, twisted, scary and enchanted supporting character. Instead, we might as well be looking at a bunch of matte paintings.

For a movie lover who is not yet familiar with the apparent greatness of the Sondheim musical, I cannot imagine a weaker, more aggressively milquetoast advertisement for it than this film adaptation. It is not entirely dreadful; it's not a catastrophe; it's not without its moments and its charm. It's just, to put it simply, weak. It's like getting served decaf when what you need is the real stuff.

It becomes increasingly obvious over the course of the film that something vital is missing - even beyond the flaccid direction - because the possibilities of the narrative experiment are so clear, and so fundamentally enticing. Into the Woods combines and reimagines a collection of beloved fairy tales - think of it as The Brothers Grimm's The Avengers - only to completely subvert them and upend audience's long-standing expectations of how each story ends and what each story means. For all intents and purposes, the first half - in which the likes of Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack (of Beanstalk fame) play out the predetermined fantasy versions of the stories we know so well, complete with happy endings for all - exists primarily to set up the second half, which extends beyond those happy "endings" to tear the fairy tales apart.

But the all-important second half of Into the Woods, at least in this version, gets completely shafted, as Marshall sprints through the twists and resolutions of each story, to the extent that they all end up feeling perfunctory. The arc for Cinderella and Prince Charming - played by Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine, respectively - is a particularly egregious example. While musical numbers in movies often serve as nifty shortcuts through the emotional hills and valleys of a particular story, theirs has no such luck. They have one number together and then boom, that narrative thread is suddenly resolved without ever having been given the time to develop.

Thankfully, Pine emerges from this mess unscathed, and in fact is one of the film's bright spots. His performance is a dual showcase of leading-man modes - single-minded pursuit in one moment, self-conscious smoldering the next. (His close-ups are actually put to good use.) And he stars in the best number, Agony, a two-hander between him and his kid brother (Billy Magnussen), a similarly lovestruck prince. The scene plays out as a competitive bit of absurd male posturing - Pine rips open his shirt in a dramatic display of (you guessed it) agony, and it cuts immediately to Magnussen opening up his own in an attempt at one-upmanship. If only the rest of the movie had the same sense of playfulness. (To be fair, the film has its share of funny moments, but as a whole seems uncertain about its dramatic/comedic balance.)

Emily Blunt is the other standout, as the wife of the Baker (James Corden), who along with her husband is tasked with finding four items at the behest of the Witch (a forgettable Meryl Streep) in order to lift the family curse. (Don't bother with the other details, it'll only bog us down.) The Baker and his wife are basically the connecting tissue between all of the other stories.

Ultimately, too little of Into the Woods actually has room to breathe or come alive. Between the scope of the story and the size of the budget, Marshall proves himself ill-equipped to handle it all. There's one key moment in which Marshall literally hides a major special effect from us (a CGI-enhanced giant that we only ever see from an obstructed view), and I honestly couldn't tell if it was a creative decision or a budget decision. If it's the former, the decision was a bad one (it undermines the entire scene); if it's the latter, then the whole thing just comes across as a cheapo embarrassment. Either way, it's a huge dramatic failure (bordering on ineptitude) in a very important sequence.

The movie is full of little failures like that; they build and build on each other, mitigated at times by the quality of the music or an especially inspired performance, but ultimately they conspire to overwhelm a film that always feels like it should be a whole lot better. As the title promises, Marshall takes us deep into the woods - he just has no idea what to do once he gets there.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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