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Review: 'Into the Woods' is at least not agony

A strangely inert take on Stephen Sondheim's most accessible work also fumbles the second half. Still, Chris Pine!
Into the Woods

James Corden and Emily Blunt are cursed by Meryl Streep's witch in the movie of StPeter Mountain

‘Into the Woods’
Director:
Rob Marshall
Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt
Rating: PG
2 (out of 5) Globes

Along with “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods” is the Stephen Sondheim show that could be a movie. That’s not to say it should be a movie. It’s the musical maker’s most audience-friendly work — until, in the second half, it suddenly isn’t, taking what was bouncy and freewheeling and turning it unexpectedly serious and grim. The sharp tonal shift requires a deft hand, which Rob Marshall, director of the “Into the Woods” film, does not possess. It’s a funny and gloomy work, neither of which are his forte, and much of "Into the Woods" feels like it's insufficiently neither — a zippy satire that's bizarrely straight and inert.

Unlike Marshall’s Fellini fiasco “Nine,” which drowned even Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s periodically saved by some excellent performances. Chief among those is Emily Blunt, who’s her wonderfully expressive self as the lowly Baker’s Wife, spouse, of course, of The Baker (future late night staple James Corden), two of the many fairy tale favorites crammed into one perpetually overcast cute town. They’re trying to rid themselves of a curse by The Witch (Meryl Streep), an all-purpose hag who also has her mitts in the business of Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who herself is in love with one of two princes. The other one (Chris Pine) is really into this Cinderella person (Anna Kendrick) who keeps showing up at his ball and running away at midnight.

James Lapine, who wrote the musical’s book, also wrote the screenplay, and he does a fine job hacking it into a zippy movie shape — in the first half. The second half is more of a bloodbath than the show itself, which finds characters likeable and not being indiscriminately offed by a vengeful giant hunting for beanstalk-climbing Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). The hacking of the show too is indiscriminate and inelegant; it cuts the killings by two-thirds, but leaves in the pedo wolf (Johnny Depp) who lusts for the nubile flesh of Red Riding Hood (14-year-old Lilla Crawford). So much is gone, including the best characters/performers, that by the time things have shifted to a more emotional tone, it feels cheap and unsupported, and the whole thing crawls to a limp finish.

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Still, there’s stray pleasure to be had. The opening 10 minutes are a whirligig of storyline hopscotch, with Sondheim’s melodies weaving into each other with breezy dexterity, and voiced by performers who, unlike the stars of Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” can actually sing. Speaking of Burton, the gloom is hand-me-down him, though cinematographer Dion Beebe lights it storybook dark while still making the sets look charmingly artificial. (There’s even a fog machine.)

But Marshall doesn’t have a feel for this. (Burton, actually, would have been better.) Moreover, he only knows a few camera moves, usually circling around his actors ad nauseum, always moving to little or no purpose. At least he doesn’t do the chicken thing he did with “Chicago” and “Nine,” which envisioned the song-and-dance numbers as fantasies. Here the performers just break into song, partly because Sondheim prefers to keep his singers singing. The only number Marshall figures out is “Agony,” featuring studly princes Pine and Billy Magnussen ripping open a shirt button every time the chorus comes around while splashing about in water. For two minutes a mixed production, impossible to hate or much like, seems worth it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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