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New Release Review - Into the Woods

Screen adaptation of the Sondheim Broadway show.

Directed by: Rob Marshall

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Johnny Depp



Long before Shrek, Enchanted and Tangled gave us postmodern takes on classical fairy tales, a Broadway show had been successfully mining the very same concept. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods premiered back in 1986, coincidentally around the same time as Rob Reiner was filming his adaptation of William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride, another take on similar material. Several attempts had previously been made to bring Into the Woods to the screen, but for a long period, 'musical' was a dirty word in box office terms. Recently, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of TV song contests, musicals have become a draw once again, and so we finally get a three decades late screen translation of the Broadway smash.
In what director Rob Marshall has cheekily labelled 'The Avengers of fairy tales,' Into the Woods brings together a bunch of the most famous creations of the Brothers Grimm. A baker (Korden) and his wife (Blunt) are unable to bear children, thanks to a curse placed on them by a witch (Streep), but are offered a chance to break the spell if they can provide the witch with four specific items - a lock of hair as yellow as corn, a cow as white as milk, a pair of golden slippers, and a red cape - by midnight three days hence, thus returning the haggard witch's beauty.
Setting off on their quest, the baker and his wife encounter Red Riding Hood, pursued by a hungry wolf (Depp), Cinderella (Kendrick), who is being wooed by a charming Prince (Pine, the comic highlight of the film), Jack, who has been indulging in some light fingered activity at the top of a beanstalk, and Rapunzel, confined in a tower by Streep's over-protective witch.
Through no fault of the source material, Into the Woods now feels retro-actively derivative, thanks to the abundance of movies and even TV shows that have covered similar ground in recent years. Rob Marshall has somehow become the go-to director for musical adaptations, despite possessing little in the way of visual flair. Lacking dance sequences (an essential part of the musical experience in this reviewer's opinion), Into the Woods is reduced to little more than a series of close-ups of characters singing in Marshall's hands, much like Tom Hooper's excruciating Les Miserables adaptation. Visual storytelling is noticeably absent, and there's not much conveyed here that you wouldn't get from a cast recording, impressive production design aside. Marshall seems to have forgotten the old storytelling adage of 'show, don't tell,' or in this case, 'show, don't yell!'
There are two key elements that save Into the Woods from becoming the disaster Hooper's Les Mis was. For one, its cast members can all hold a tune (though Sondheim's music rarely gives us anything resembling a hummable melody). Secondly, the movie has a sense of humour, for the most part, and Blunt and Pine particularly embrace the panto aspect with relish.
These two aspects keep us entertained to a point, but just when the movie seems to have ended satisfactorily around the 90 minute mark, it turns out this is merely a Lord of the Rings style false ending, and there's another whole act awaiting us. This final act sinks the whole production, as the tone becomes a lot darker, and a lot less interesting, with gags almost nonexistent for a final 30 minutes that feels a whole lot longer.
With some liberal trimming, Into the Woods could have been an entertaining piece of seasonal entertainment, but ultimately its narrative, like its protagonists, becomes lost in the woods.
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