It’s hard to say how many stage musicals get adapted to the screen on average each year, but 2014 seems to have produced more than usual. The last year has produced both Jersey Boys and Annie – a pair of pretty terrible movies, regardless of how appreciated or beloved the source material may be. The stage-to-screen transition is a difficult one to pull off where musicals are concerned, but that would never stop a studio from trying. Disney is the latest company to attempt such an undertaking, choosing Rob Marshall (Chicago) to usher Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods to the screen.
On the surface the show seems like a perfect fit for the studio most famous for its animated portrayals of fairy tales. Into the Woods depicts a fantasy world where Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) all live in or around the same vast, dark wood. Their stories intertwine and play out alongside that of a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are sent into the woods by a witch (Meryl Streep) in the hopes of breaking a decades-old curse. Wishes are fulfilled (though not always as the wisher might have liked) and happily-ever-afters are granted, though not permanently.
The best aspects of the film are the best aspects of the stage musical, starting with the very concept. Into the Woods was one of the first attempts at a “shared universe” (à la The Avengers) outside of comic books. It’s the type of thing that studios go crazy for these days, and for good reason. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t bear a nostalgic connection to at least some of these classic stories, and there is no small sense of innate joy that comes from seeing the characters interact; thus the clearly-influenced work seen in Bill Willingham’s Fables comic series and ABC’s Once Upon a Time. It doesn’t hurt that Sondheim’s music and lyrics for Into the Woods are among his career-best. The songs are clever, catchy, and full of meaning.
Unfortunately most of that meaning is lost in the film. As excellent as the source is, Marshall’s Into the Woods is a pretty crummy adaptation. The show grapples with powerful themes such as innocence lost and filial responsibility; the vague outlines are still present in the lyrics in the film, but the meat of these ideas is sacrificed in favor of a more basic and juvenile idea: be careful what you wish for. This is a result of the Disney fingerprint, softening the harshness and stark reality of the stage show. This is most obvious in the film’s handling of death, a devastating part of the stage show that is treated with the kiddiest of kids’ gloves on the screen.
But you cannot fairly pass judgement on Into the Woods as a film based on how it pales in comparison to its excellent inspiration. Instead the picture’s flaws must speak for themselves. And actually the movie’s biggest fault is another holdover from the show: its stagey direction. Marshall makes very few interesting choices as the captain of the ship. Regardless of your opinion of Marshall’s Chicago, you cannot really complain about the staginess; that cabaret vibe is inherent to the show. The same cannot be said for Into the Woods, which portrays a fantasy world, yet is blocked in the same way that one might block a high school production. The instances where Marshall takes advantage of the cinematic medium – through vision, editing, or camera work – can be counted on one hand (the princes’ – Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen – “Agony,” the Witch’s final number, a “big” presence in the second half); everything else is just flat.
I’m perhaps being harder on the film than is called for in this case. It is a rare example of my inability to isolate an adaptation from its source material. There are certainly things to like in Into the Woods; the performances are mostly (the less said about Johnny Depp the better) excellent – especially those of Pine, Blunt, and Corden – and the story’s undermining of traditional structure is a nice change of pace. This film is superior to the other movie musicals in the class of 2014, but that’s a big-fish-small-pond situation. Perhaps Hollywood should get back to producing its own original musicals, but until then you could do worse than Into the Woods.