Despite having a background in musical theater (shut up, I do), I've managed unintentionally to elude Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. It's not for lack of affection for Sondheim, whom I find to be the coolest dude on Broadway. I'm also down for the show's sky-high concept story, in which not only fairytale characters, but also their very stories themselves commingle in the same world. What better way for a movie guy to receive an introduction to this veritable property than through a Disney-funded film version, one that boasts Meryl friggin' Streep as a whacked-out witch with crazy hair and crazier fingernails?
Oh, it's directed by Rob Marshall, you say? You've already lost me.
And lost I continued to be with this film, which may have proved to be too sprawling for the grossly overrated filmmaker at its helm. Marshall made his bones with the Best Picture-winning Chicago, a film whose success owes more to its editor and talented stars than its director. Since then, he has continued to butcher other beloved works of art, including Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which somehow was worse than its predecessor.
Marshall's fatal flaw is his inability to present action clearly onscreen, which makes him a puzzling choice as a frequent director of musical adaptations from the stage, where you can't help but see everything that's going on. Like the ill-chosen Tom Hooper did in Les Miserables, Marshall shoves his camera way up into the faces of his actors, yet still insists on having a lot of visual busyness happening simultaneously, in both the foreground and background. It's that busyness that undoes Marshall's films, because it is rarely more interesting than the actors.
Take, for example, an allegedly dramatic scene towards the end of Into the Woods (no spoilers forthcoming). We're watching the incomparable Meryl Streep belt a tune like we've never heard her before—looking absolutely stunning, by the way—and what does Marshall do? Obscure her with a bunch of nonsense special effects and pointless camera swirling. Furthermore, Marshall also makes the decision to climax his film not with a song, but with a goddamn fight scene. I'd be hard-pressed to believe that the stage version of this story features CGI giants in it, and seriously doubt that Sondheim and book-writer James Lapine would allow it end on such a boring note. Even if it does, I'm sure it plays out more excitingly than Marshall shows it here.
Yet the cast and that darn music save Into the Woods from plummeting into big budget-induced hell. In addition to Streep are Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, and a really game Chris Pine. Johnny Depp even shows up briefly as the Wolf—he must have owed Marshall a favor for Pirates. These actors, none of whom are particularly famous for their singing talent, give wonderfully engaged performances, especially Blunt, who can be drily funny in one moment and then painfully wistful in the next. Streep, not one to share the spotlight, towers over them all as the Witch. The film's best moments are its quietest ones, with Streep's emotional and tortured rendition of "Stay with Me" ranking as its best.
Finally, we are left with the story, which I have left until now to discuss because I'm wrestling with how I feel about it. What happens story-wise on the stage can be forgiven if illogical things happen or characters suddenly vanish, because it is easier to suspend your disbelief. When it happens on film, however, the inconsistencies become that much more glaring. A major character dies well before the end of the film, and the way that Marshall portrays it feels entirely unearned and anticlimactic, almost as though it is an impermanent change. Alas, that character stays dead, and the audience stays unsatisfied and baffled. The profusion of characters and various storylines—which can be easily depicted in different areas of the stage—necessitate a heroic editing job, and luckily editor Wyatt Smith is up to the task. Marshall, however, utterly fails to elicit equal interest in all the characters; the Rapunzel thread had me impatiently checking my watch each time it came up.
Into the Woods is a misguided attempt to bring what is obviously a very worthy musical to the masses. The cast alone makes it worth watching, but the film is easily less than the sum of its parts. Maybe you could pick up the soundtrack, or check out clips on YouTube, instead. Consider this film damned, by means of faint praise.