Musicals can be tough to adapt from the stage to film, but you’d think that Rob Marshall, who brought the genre into the 21st century with 2002’s Oscar-winning Chicago, would be a safe pair of hands. Unfortunately, that’s maybe too true of Into The Woods, a project that has flummoxed filmmakers for a good couple of decades.
The much anticipated film is based on Stephen Sondheim’s play, mashing up a bunch of different fairytales to more subversive effect. In a magical kingdom by a great forest, a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) are desperate to have a child together. Alas, the baker is cursed with childlessness by the Witch who lives next door (Meryl Streep) over a quarrel with his deadbeat dad, (Simon Russell Beale.)
Fortunately for them, she agrees to lift the curse in the event of a blue moon three nights hence, if they gather the ingredients she needs to make a restorative potion, including items that belong to Cinderella, (Anna Kendrick) Little Red Riding Hood, (Lilla Crawford) Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone.)
Each of the characters has a quest of their own, but they all cross over with one another as they tread the familiar paths, with consequences that reach as far as the cloudy domain of the giants that live in the sky. All the same, it takes place squarely in the periphery of anything we do know about these fairytale characters.
It’s a film that’s more about what happens beneath the neat ‘happily ever after’ that closes most of these stories, exploring the more sordid and human side. As a side effect, lots of iconic events occur off-screen and are either sung about after the fact, or exposited through James Corden’s ceaselessly irritating narration.
It speaks to the limitations of the stage without bothering to take advantage of the visual medium to really make anything iconic of its own. As expected, Colleen Atwood’s costume design is a sumptuous highlight, but the misty aesthetic does nothing to avert the general dreariness of the adaptation.
In his on-screen capacity, Corden makes for an enthusiastic everyman, building a likeable, frazzled chemistry with the wonderful Emily Blunt as his screen wife. Their frustrating fetch-quest gives the film a lot of spark, bringing more of a pantomime atmosphere than Marshall really allows elsewhere.
Refreshingly, it’s the big hitters in the cast who really let loose with the panto affectations. Meryl Streep’s Witch BAMFs into scenes all over the shop and generally belts out numbers in much the same way as she did in Mamma Mia! Johnny Depp, who’s no stranger to Sondheim after leading Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, still has a limited vocal range, but his zoot-suited take on the Big Bad Wolf at least makes for a memorable cameo.
The other standout would be Anna Kendrick, whose Cinderella plays out the traditional arc of her own story, complete with Wicked Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and loathsome step-sisters (a wonderfully rancid Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch) The twist is that she’s just not that into her Prince, played by a magnificently campy Chris Pine. He’s channelling William Shatner more here than he ever has in the Star Trek movies, in the best way.
The true comic highlight of the film is a number called Agony, in which he and another Prince (Billy Magnussen) try to upstage one another in a heartsick, shirt-ripping duet. Blunt’s Moments In The Woods is a great number too, and Your Fault is both the best part of a lumpen third act and the closest the film really gets to sustaining any energy.
The trouble is, none of the songs are all that catchy. The popularity of the show speaks to the effectiveness of the songbook on stage, but something must have got lost in translation. The reliance on pivotal events happening off-screen isn’t surprising, so much as perfunctory, forsaking any emotional impact in what should be huge developments, particularly in the last hour of the film.
Into The Woods has a reputation as a subversive, darkly funny fairytale, but there’s nothing so interesting to be had in this film adaptation. Many of the players are having a great time, even if the audience isn’t, but it’s carried through by standout performances from Blunt, Kendrick and especially Pine.
Fans of the show have taken umbrage with the sanitisation of certain darker plot twists, but looking at the whole picture, it’s more bland than safe. Perhaps, if it had strayed from the path a little further, we might have gotten something altogether more lively.
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