Into the Woods, the Sondheim musical that mashes up multiple fairy tales, was always going to be a difficult show to adapt into a film. The story is both humorous and exceptionally grim by turns, setting up perfect fantasy endings just to tear them all apart in the last act. This fact, combined with Sondheim’s notoriously difficult melodies and the high expectations of the existing fan base, meant that director and producer Rob Marshall had a daunting task ahead of him.
However, Into the Woods makes for an entertaining though dark cinematic musical. While the film’s production design and attention to visual detail is sumptuous, the success of the film is mostly due to the wonderful ensemble cast. Meryl Streep turns in an excellent performance as the Witch who is trying to get her youth and beauty back after being cursed for losing her garden’s magic beans. Much like in the maligned Mamma Mia!, Streep is obviously having fun in her role, particularly in her scenery-chewing finale “The Last Midnight”. Whether she’s playing the crone or the beauty, Streep always brings everything with her to the screen. Surprisingly though, she’s not the standout actor of the film. Instead James Corden as the Baker steals nearly every scene he’s in. Though not a traditional leading man, Corden puts in an undeniably charismatic performance, retaining the sympathy of the audience in both his heroic highs and cowardly lows. Chris Pine is another bright spot in the cast, lightening the mood of every scene he’s in with his charming but shallow Prince. Though mostly known for his dramatic roles, Pine’s comedic timing should land him more humorous roles.
Unfortunately, Into the Woods does have some faults that keep it from musical film perfection. The varying mood of the story that works so well in the stage show suffers from being forced into a cinematic format. The tone and pacing are uneven to the point where several scene transitions seem jarring. The scenes with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf suffer the most, seeming completely out of place. The scene inside the Wolf’s belly is particularly odd, with the art direction seeming to be from a different film entirely. Similarly, one of the best scenes of Into the Woods is also a scene that is very different from the rest of the film. “Agony”, a comedic vocal duel that features the two princes having a melodic battle of dramatics on top of a waterfall, provides a much-needed comedic break. The peacocking in the scene pokes fun at the courtly facades of both characters while engaging in some campy fun. However again, the tone and style of “Agony” also clashes with the rest of the movie, providing a somewhat disjointed viewing experience.
Still, Into the Woods is never stronger than the moments when it digs into its own darkness. Although its rooted in fairy tale, spouses still cheat, loved ones are killed for good, and wishes can turn sour in the end. The characters in this musical are all flawed – some fatally so – but these same flaws allow them to transcend their traditional archetypes and become fully fleshed out. And while some viewers may find the harsh realities of the final act of the movie too dark, it’s exactly what it needs to be. While it may make us feel uncomfortable to admit that princes can turn out to be disappointing realities, the most loving spouses can be unfaithful, and fathers can fail, the honesty of the film is worth the discomfort. However, Into the Woods doesn’t leave the audience lost in the dark. In the end, the message that we are not alone is what’s most important – and what saves the movie from being unbearably grim.
With a cast that is both game and skilled, beautiful and moody visuals, and a story that is nuanced enough to leave you pondering the movie after the final credits, Into the Woods is more than worth watching.