There’s a pretty big name on the poster for Into The Woods. No it’s not Meryl Streep. Or Johnny Depp. Or Anna Kendrick. Or any of the star-studded cast.
Now, Disney may seem like a suitable choice to produce a film based on a musical based on fairytales. Sondheim’s show intertwines the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and more, as well as a Baker and his wife on a quest to obtain magical items to dispel a curse on their home that is preventing them from having a family. Except this is no children’s story. The end comes at the halfway point; Sondheim then explores the meaning of “happily ever after”. It’s a plot that questions morality and parental responsibility, with a surprising amount of sex, violence and death.
With Disney at the helm, much of this has been altered, the essence of the film lost. Character traits have been softened; whole characters are missing; certain deaths no longer occur; any violence is quickly glossed over and deaths are forgotten; and the ending (whilst mostly faithful to the original) is utterly saccharine. The darkest moment comes from Johnny Depp’s Wolf and his disturbingly sexual song to Little Red Riding Hood, though even that has been toned down somewhat.
Still, director Rob Marshall has attempted to bring a sense of realism that belies the fairytale origins. The overall colour palette is dark and sombre that lends the film a washed out dreary feel – the lack of visual excitement doesn’t help a narrative that drags with its meandering second half. Within this setting, much of the script’s clichéd dialogue is laughable. This, then, is the dichotomy of the film: it is neither a children’s story, nor an adult one. Instead, it pleases nobody and lands in a forgettable, mediocre middle ground that makes this trip into the woods something of a slog.
The performances, too, fall into one of these two categories, leading to a wildly inconsistent tone. Some accents are English, some are American; some actors sing classically, others have pop inflections; some play cartoon characters, others seek the emotional truth. It smacks of poor direction. Meryl Streep’s Witch, for instance, is little more than a blue-haired pantomime villain with a wispy soprano, occasional vulnerability and appalling make-up. Chris Pine’s Prince Charming is melodramatic, but it’s at least very amusing, complete with camp swoon-inducing shirt rip. On the other hand, there’s James Corden as the Baker doing his usual cute, endearing shtick, and Emily Blunt as his wife, who delivers a quirky, believable and surprisingly moving performance. Yet Blunt and Pine in the same scene is like two actors from two different films; they simply don’t mesh. Perhaps that’s the point, in which case it’s not pushed far enough.
Anna Kendrick excels as Cinderella – a headstrong depiction of the character and an actress who can actually sing, in a cast whose vocals are severely over-produced. The actors may look the part, but they don’t always sound it. Most annoying vocally, though, are the two children – Lilla Crawford’s squeaky Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone’s cockney Jack (of beanstalk fame - basically Toby from Sweeney Todd and Gavroche from Les Mis spliced together). And you'd barely recognise Frances de la Tour as the Giantess.
At the very least, Into The Woods brings Sondheim’s wonderful score to a broader audience. There are certainly similarities with the rest of his oeuvre, but even on celluloid his gorgeous melodies and orchestrations soar. It ensures there are some poignant moments in the woods, such as the pause in time for Cinderella’s “On The Steps Of The Palace” and (incidentally) the Baker’s Wife’s “Moments in the Woods”. Yet these are merely tiny sparkles in a film that’s mostly devoid of magic.
Watch: Into The Woods is released on 9th January in the UK.