Unimaginative direction dulls adaptation of fascinating fairytale musical
Into the Woods
I haven’t seen a live stage production of Into the Woods, but on the basis of Rob Marshall’s movie version, I’m guessing I’d like it quite a bit. Marshall’s movie, on the other hand, is nothing very special apart from it’s being a proficiently filmed record of the award-winning musical play written by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim.
The play’s most distinctive element—its darkly dreamy mashup and intermingling of several well-known fairy tales—is genuinely fascinating, regardless of how, or how well, it’s presented. The movie version, working from Lapine’s own screenplay adaptation, puts that across ably enough, even with Marshall’s rather unimaginative direction.
The convergence of re-imagined versions of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, etc., might have been the occasion for a fresh approach to movie fantasy. It’s tempting to ponder what a director with more apposite skills and inclinations—Neil Jordan, Wes Anderson, Jane Campion—might have done with this material. But the Disney logo and the PG rating seem signs that there never really was much hope that we’d get anything other than what we’re getting here.
What we do get includes a reasonably good cast: one true star (Meryl Streep) and a couple of others (Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick) who may be truly on the rise, a couple of quirky juveniles (Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack), some marquee names (Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman) in smaller roles, ostensible male leads (James Corden, Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) doing journeyman duty as unheroic, more-lunk-than-hunk princely types, and one bonkers, scene-stealing cameo (Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf, a wolfish human disguised as a cat wearing hipster threads and a fox’s tail).
The cast is never less than adequate to the song and dance stuff, but the mediocrity of the male leads’ work dulls key aspects of the production; the female leads, by contrast, are much more attuned to the libretto’s mixture of wonder-tale mystery and modern, revisionist irony. Streep is the heart of the matter in the Witch role. She’s the central embodiment of the play’s ambivalent fantasies, and the most nuanced and compelling of the movie’s voices, singing and speaking alike.
Kendrick, the story’s Cinderella, exudes princess potential but also has just enough scrappy toughness to make her credibly adverse to the vacuous entitlements sought by her über-blonde stepsisters. Blunt (the Baker’s Wife), she of the soft beauty and baleful gaze, might be the most perfect instance of passionate sentiment and romantic sorrow in the entire film.