Rob Marshall’s movie of Into the Woods has finally arrived in theaters, and it’s… OK. Or OK! Whether it’s the OK with the period or the OK with the exclamation point depends on your expectations, really. Mine were all over the place. Steven Sondheim and James Lapine’s stage musical is one of my favorites, but adapting it for the screen could go wrong in many ways. The cast and the costumes looked great (with the exception of Johnny Depp in a weird pimp-suit for the Wolf), but the director’s ability with the material was a question mark after two musicals (Chicago and the disastrous Nine) where all the songs were stage-y fantasies rather than integrated into the action, and how the Disney studio would adapt a decidedly un-Disney take on fairy tales was cause for concern. It’s a relief to note that, except for the fate of one character, the movie has not been Disneyfied, and the material’s darkness remains compelling. Disaster averted. But it’s not a grand success either, with some questionable choices in adapting, directing, and acting that hold it back from greatness.
Adaptations of stage musicals typically face challenges in pacing, especially in the multiplex era with the death of the movie theater intermission. Into the Woods‘ bifurcated structure is perfect with an intermission, but a less natural fit for a movie adaptation. James Lapine himself adapted his book into the screenplay, and tries his best, but the result feels both too long and too short. The loss of most of the ensemble numbers is fine, given that the movie isn’t good at staging the ones that remain. Cutting between solitary characters walking is just a lot less interesting to watch than seeing everyone on stage together. Bigger losses in compression are the reprise of “Agony” (a shame, since the first rendition is a highlight of the movie) and “No More” (more understandable given the need to dump the father-as-narrator subplot, but it’s an emotional beat that feels shortchanged).
Perhaps one or even both of those numbers could be squeezed into the runtime if the remaining scenes didn’t tend to move so slowly. The worst offenders in this regard are pretty much everything with Meryl Streep as the Witch. She can sing, but she can’t keep up with the fast pace of Sondheim’s music and as such every number of hers that should be a show-stopper turns out to be a show-slower. The story of her adopted daughter Rapunzel is the one that’s been toned down, and the reprise of “Children Should Listen” doesn’t sting with the pain it needs to make the altered story still emotional. It’s kind of a shocker, but she’s the second weakest link in the cast (the weakest by far is, as expected, Johnny Depp, who seems to have walked in from a different movie entirely).
Fortunately the rest of the cast is more up for their parts. The kids playing Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) have amazing voices. James Corden is a likeable lead as the Baker, while Anna Kendrick’s appealingly neurotic as Cinderella (she nails “On the Steps of the Palace”, one of the few numbers where Marshall’s old ultra-stylization comes back and actually works). The stand outs are Emily Blunt, who makes empathetic the Baker’s Wife’s shifting feelings and issues about marriage, and Chris Pine, as Cinderella’s beautifully vapid and decidedly unfaithful Prince. Who knew either of them can sing? But they can, and their “Moment in the Woods” liaison, once rumored to be cut entirely, is perhaps the best, certainly the funniest number in the movie.
Overall, I’m leaning towards that exclamation point on the “OK!” The story is generally unscathed and the music is mostly performed well. Sweeney Todd might have been better directed as a movie, but Into the Woods is mostly better sung, which is important for a musical and especially for a Sondheim adaptation. Could it have been great? Yes, and it’s not, but considering all the ways this could have been a disaster, “not a disaster” (those bizarre Johnny Depp scenes aside) is still worth a little bit of celebration.