“Into the woods, then out of the woods, and home before dark!” promises Rob Marshall’s recently released film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1987 musical, Into the Woods. Unfortunately, Marshall’s film quickly forgets its promise. Despite Sondheim laying a clear path to success with his wickedly delightful and exquisitely powerful music and concept, director Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods quickly strays, stumbles, and becomes horribly lost in a tangled jungle of shadows, grit, and unwieldy CGI. Marshall’s two-hour marathon of low energy monotony and confused direction certainly won’t have you home before dark.
Into The Woods follows the story of the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), cursed eternally childless by their neighbor, the evil Witch (Meryl Streep). In a moment of mysterious generosity, the Witch gives them one chance to break the spell of infertility: they have three days to find spectacular ingredients for the Witch’s counter-curse, all of which await them in the woods beyond their village. As they bumble through the forest, they collide with several other classic fairytale characters: Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstock and more. Into the Woods uses the deceptively idyllic storybook tropes that every child grew up with in order to explore deeper, darker, and more adult themes. Adapted for the screen by the writers of the original musical, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, the Into the Woods film script has all the makings of a poignant and spectacular exploration of sexuality, family, and omnipresent fear of and need to grow up, no matter how old you are.
Unfortunately, the complex symbolism and allegory that makes the script of Into the Woods so successful monstrously fails in Rob Marshall’s film. Marshall demonstrates an impressive inability to understand a metaphor even when it prances in front of him wearing “a cloak as red as blood”. In a musical whose characters must learn the difference between the way their fairytales seem and the way things really are, it’s ironic that the director doesn’t pick up on any of the musical’s bountiful subtext. In the opening number, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) assures us that “the woods are just trees, the trees are just woods”, but we spend the entire film learning that the woods are actually an escape, an awakening, a nightmare, and a dream come true all at once. Marshall apparently tuned out after Red’s misinformed guarantee, blowing his set and special effects budget on literal representations of the characters’ abstracted morality tales. The dark and sexy razzle-dazzle of Marshall’s previous films Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009) translates poorly to the campy, satirical fantasy world of Into the Woods. By setting Into the Woods in a gritty and gloomy hyper-realistic forest, Marshall trains his audience to expect the eventual corruption and convolution of the seemingly idyllic fairytales, which spoils the latter half of the movie’s creative breakdown and subversion of “happily ever after”.
Little Red is lured from the path by the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and his promise of adventure and wonders. He teaches her to see the beauty of the woods, but devours her when the lesson is through. Their conflict represents the “scary and exciting” business of learning, a loss of innocence laced with sexual innuendo. Upon being cut from the Wolf’s belly, Red reflects upon what the Wolf has taught her: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit…not.” For the children in the audience, this moment prepares them for the frightening but rewarding experience of growing up. Or it would, if Rob Marshall didn’t sidetrack the entire number with a psychedelic flashback to the Wolf swallowing Little Red down a rabbit hole and into a plush, pink cave of a stomach. Not only was the sequence hammy and alienating, but it defeated the entire purpose of Little Red’s story; if “I Know Things Now” is a number about literally being eaten, what has Red learned “a lot” about? The digestive track of the common wolf? By reducing Into the Woods to a sensationalized reenactment the most well-known fairytales, the musical loses what sets it apart from Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014), Once Upon a Time (2011—), and every other revisited fable. The scenes become isolated and unoriginal chapters in a Mother Goose anthology without the revitalizing overarching themes of self-discovery, growing up, and questioning faiths. Without these driving questions, Into the Woods becomes tired, anticlimactic, and done.
The performances in Into the Woods are the saving grace of the film. Individual cast members’ songs such as Meryl Streep’s explosive and earth-shattering “Last Midnight”, and Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s epically ridiculous prince-off, “Agony”, are extraordinary stand-out moments of movie magic and powerful performance. Corden and Blunt, are effortlessly comedic and share comfortable and charming chemistry with one another as the Baker and his Wife. Their greatest work surfaces in moments of quiet dialogue which best allow them to delve into the lighthearted metatheatrics and satire of the script. Lilla Crawford and Chris Pine perfectly embodied the tongue-in-cheek spirit of Into the Woods. Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince wholeheartedly committed to the extreme level of camp the cheesy and sleazy royal embodies. Lilla Crawford balances eager childishness and naïveté with the seriousness of a young woman with impressive grace in her portrayal of Little Red Riding Hood. Meryl Streep is unforgettable in her twisted yet hilarious, disturbing yet poignant portrayal of the dichotomous Witch. (Although I believe her Oscar nomination isn’t so much deserved as it is the Academy’s Pavlovian response to her name.) It’s unfortunate that much of her performance get drowned out by the excessive age-makeup, impressively ratty wig, and curling fake nails the designers deemed necessary to ensure the dim-witted audience could tell she was a witch.
As a theatre kid who has always put movies first, it pains me to say that Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Into The Woods is simply unnecessary. In a misguided attempt to childproof the darker Into the Woods for Disney audiences, Marshall removed the deeper and more challenging subtleties of the musical. But the difficulties of living a life both good and bad, scary and exciting, magical and real are important for children to understand and learn. Marshall falls into the common trap of making a film child-appropriate by dumbing it down rather than targeting and treating youth-appropriate themes. The film adaptation of Into the Woods gave us pretty pastiches of fairytales but the musical has so much more to offer. As the camera pulls away into one last pan of the titular woods, the cast comes together to sing their final message: “Careful the things you say, children will listen.” If saying something requires care and caution, Marshall has weaseled his way out of that responsibility by saying nothing at all. It’s disappointing to see an opportunity for a refreshingly serious and truly rewarding family film lose its way in the big bad woods.
If you liked the good parts, try the 1997 recording of the stage version—it’s gratifyingly free of Marshall’s directorial failures.