Musicals and I have never really been on the same wavelength. As a child I can vividly recall watching Disney classics like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and sinking in my seat when the inevitable musical numbers began. That antipathy remains, decades later. The first film I was assigned to review for a site other than my own was Frozen, and I admit I struggled to express my thoughts on a genre that’s always been a closed book to me. But 2014 has brought with it a musical that I could love.
That film was Tokyo Tribe.
Unfortunately, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s famous Into the Woods proves as unappealing to me as its compatriots. You see, it’s not the musical interludes themselves that bother me about these films, but the whole musical theatre approach. The songs are grandiose yet homogenous, with the characters expressing their deepest emotions and fears with an obviousness that bleeds into the entire aesthetic. Everything is so big and colourful and overt yet almost inevitably the pallid smallness of the ideas can’t live up to the ostentatious style.
Into the Woods promised something different. As you might have guessed, I’m not familiar with the original musical – which will hopefully differentiate this piece from the dozens of reviews that do little but rank the effectiveness of the film as an adaptation. But I’d heard enough about it to understand that it existed as a subversion of sorts, unpacking the murky psychology underpinning the bright happiness that illuminates Disney musicals. While Into the Woods does subvert its influences, it suffers from the same obviousness that prevents my appreciation of its genre, both in its flashy musical numbers and its attempts at commentary (granted, it’s entirely possible that the original production was subtler and more incisive).
Into the Woods begins as a mash-up of a host of familiar stories, and many of these stories are played essentially straight throughout the first act. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) heads to visit her grannie and is accosted by a wolf (Johnny Depp). Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) catches Prince Charming’s (Chris Pine’s) eye at the ball before fleeing at the stroke of midnight. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) trades the family cow for a handful of magic beans to his mother’s (Tracey Ullman’s) dismay. A witch (Meryl Streep) keeps the beautiful maiden Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) imprisoned in a tall tower where another prince (Billy Magnussen) makes regular visits by scaling her long golden locks. These well-worn tales are connected by a pair of bakers (Emily Blunt & James Corden), tasked by the witch to venture into the woods and collect four items (yes, it’s essentially an RPG sub-quest, with the reward their ability to have a child).
There’s an edge to all this that should, theoretically, elevate it beyond a series of rushed retellings. Depp’s Wolf is a thinly-disguised (and entirely slimy) sexual predator. The witch’s bitterness is linked to her anxiousness regarding her gnarled appearance. The baker and his wife attempt to negotiate gender roles as they weave their way through the woods. And so forth.
Despite this, I found this section mostly a chore. Marshall’s direction is entirely theatrical: showy performances, showy costumes and showy camera flourishes. It never feels cinematic; you’re kept at a distance, as though watching from the distant rows of a packed theatre, and the consciously counterfeit appearance – right down to the moon’s rays filtering through the canopy like spotlights. It’s intentional, certainly, but I found it ineffective. There are bright spots, though. Emily Blunt is charming (who knew she could sing?), and for those straight dudes dragged along by their girlfriends, Anna Kendrick sure looks good running around in a corset. Chris Pine’s overacting is sublime – and his big musical number, “Agony”, is the film’s real highlight, earning spontaneous applause; however, both Streep and Depp are encouraged to indulge their worst tendencies to eye-rolling results.
Ah, but we haven’t got to this promised subversion yet! After a fake-out celebratory climax where all the appropriate couples are paired off and everyone gets their happy ending, the narrative twists towards darkness. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but there’s death and infidelity and suffering for all. Perhaps there’s a real edge to this on stage, but the insights offered here – like, maybe life doesn’t end ‘happily ever after’? – are entirely obvious to anyone out of their pre-teen years. There are some good moments here (Pine remarking that he’s “charming, not sincere” is a highlight) but the meandering pace and disconnect between the film’s two halves are clumsily handled. If you’re a fan of the genre, I won’t warn you away. But if you’re a musical sceptic like myself, I’d steer clear.