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25 Dec 2014

Flat Fairy Tales: Disney's 'Into the Woods' Sucks All the Fun Out of the Fantastic Musical

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Meryl Streep in Into the Woods. Meryl Streep in Into the Woods.

Disney’s Into the Woods is utterly clueless and boring—an adaptation that renders a musical play into a dreary movie.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway hit was a slightly sick, plucky wink at the audience—a look at the dark side of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As captured in a 1991 broadcast of American Playhouse, the play, starring Bernadette Peters, was a 150 minute-long romp with an adult sense of humor. It was hardly the stuff of Disney.

Director Rob Marshall has cut the film version down to about two hours, yet it feels twice as long as the play. Onstage, the music of Into the Woods was perky, tightly choreographed, consistently funny and almost frantic. In the movie, most of the songs just fart along. The singers are looking for emotive, warm, soulful qualities in Sondheim and Lapine’s musical. However, the musical didn’t emphasize those qualities. It was more of an intelligent, operatic goof.

This is just another princess movie. Marshall shoots most of the film on a soundstage, and while that’s admirable as far as catching live music goes, the resulting film has a bland, monotonous look to it.

The story puts a humorous spin on characters such as Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Most of the film’s plot centers on the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), cursed with a childless marriage by the Witch (Meryl Streep) after somebody messed with her garden. While Corden and Blunt sing well, their work is missing something. Only Streep manages to capture that strange, Sondheim whimsy. She is, far and away, the best thing about the movie.

Streep takes her musical moments, including “Witch’s Entrance,” and rises above the production. “Witch’s Entrance” occurs early in the film, and at that point, the film looks promising. That promise gets dashed on the rocks in moments like Crawford’s dreadful, wrongfully earnest rendition of “I Know Things Now,” Red Riding Hood’s post-wolf-encounter recollection. Sondheim’s wit is totally lost on Crawford and director Marshall.

Johnny Depp shows up for a few minutes as The Wolf in a stupid outfit that makes him look more feline than canine. His “Hello, Little Girl,” a song that is supposed to be rife with innuendo, makes him sound simply like an animal who wants to eat some food. Marshall and Depp give the number a slow, crooning presentation, as opposed to the former jaunty, obnoxious edge. It’s just wrong.

Blunt, Corden and Kendrick deliver their numbers as if they were in The Sound of Music rather than a clever fairy-tale parody. Tracey Ullman changes Jack’s Mother from a snarky bit of comic relief into a disgruntled, cranky mum. Huttlestone, who was awesome in the latest Les Misérables movie, does nothing memorable with Jack.

Understandably, Marshall deleted the character of The Narrator from the proceedings. The Narrator acted as a ringmaster in the stage show, and wouldn’t transition into a movie as a physical presence. Instead, Marshall has Corden’s Baker provide a voiceover that lends nothing fun.

The final act, involving the Giant’s Wife terrorizing the countryside, falls flat due to terrible special effects. This sequence had me thinking that Into the Woods has no business being adapted to the big screen.

Still, in those moments when Streep soars, I can’t help but think a director with a more-twisted vision, and a studio with a little more balls, could’ve given us something more suitable to Sondheim and Lapine (who, oddly enough, participated in the film’s production).

Dreamworks and Tim Burton did a masterful job with their very R-rated Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Disney should’ve taken a few cues from them, and allowed Into the Woods to retain its sense of mischief rather than neutering it.

Into the Woods is playing at theaters across the valley.

1 comment

  • Comment Link nerdychick Friday, 26 December 2014 16:24 posted by nerdychick

    I just watched it today and I have to say your review is spot on with how I feel about what they did with my favorite musical. The musical is supposed to be funny and they completely killed every joke by playing it straight. I dont know whether to blame marshall for bad directing and odd pacing or sondheim for letting them suck the fun out of this brilliant musical.

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