One of the best pieces of dialogue in Rob Marshall’s fairy tale musical, based on the play by Stephen Sondheim, is a telling zinger from Prince Charming that encapsulates the prince himself as well as the aim of this story as a whole, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” James Lapine’s writing seeks to subvert the various Disney fairy tales that are melded together here, and whether he and Marshall are successful or not is up for debate. The adaptation is occasionally faithful to the source, and corrals a gaggle of famous actors, most of whom are in top form, but…where’s the magic? “Into the Woods” is certainly charming and features a few or four memorable songs, but altogether lacks the directorial pizzazz or the narrative spark to make an indelible impression.
Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, the cast has no shortage of stars. Streep’s greatness is almost predictable at this point, bringing humor and soul to the vengeful Witch whose real concern is over-zealously keeping her daughter Rapunzel shielded from the terrors of the world, a subplot that results in the best musical number of the movie, “Witch’s Lament.” However, the dramatic impact of the song is hampered by a substantial change to the story. Instead of getting trampled by the giant in front of her mother, Rapunzel lives to ride off into the sunset with her perpetually blonde prince, thus rendering the Witch’s lament not as meaningful. Pine’s wicked comedic timing and zest for smarm is put to good use as Prince Charming, and “Agony,” a subversively funny duet with his brother, is another marvelous song on display, a witty ditty that serves to place these men on an embarrassing pedestal. Anna Kendrick is sympathetic, angelic, far from a relic, all things expected of an actress portraying Cinderella, and Johnny Depp is barely present as Little Red Riding Hood’s nemesis the Wolf, a character whose visual interpretation is perhaps too theatrical, never truly making the audience believe we’re watching a creature of the woods. More confusing is Depp’s decision to play up the character’s pedophillic undertones in a film that is otherwise too concerned with being a family-friendlier version of the stage material. Relative unknown James Corden and Emily Blunt are the Baker and his wife, the protagonists who connect these disparate fairy tales as they travel through the woods in search of items that will reverse the familial curse bestowed on them. Their relationship, and their inability to conceive a child, lays at the heart of the film, although a late, surprising fate sends something of a mixed message.
And that’s really the issue with “Into the Woods,” even if it’s not a completely detrimental one: mixed messages. The film attempts to tackle several universal themes at once, from aging to parenthood to the consequences of wishes, as well as others from the play, but Marshall doesn’t succeed at conveying any of them sincerely or effectively. All of these tropes vying for attention amid a rather drab visual landscape of greys and browns does not make for magical viewing. Charming performances from its talented cast and delightful songs prevent “Into the Woods” from being anywhere near a disaster, but it could have been so much more. It’s not “Nine” (mediocre), but it’s not “Chicago” (great) either.