“Into the Woods” Review

Adapted from the classic Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name, Into the Woods translates the story of several intertwined fairy tales from the stage to the big screen. The film follows modified plots of “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel”, while tying them all together with a story of a Baker and his wife trying to have a child, and the Witch who placed a curse on them. Directed by Rob Marshall, no stranger to movie-musicals with Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009), this film is a competent retelling of the source material, and makes the musical much more attainable to general audiences.

A big problem that many movie-musicals have had in the past few decades is that they’re shot like mediocre action films. Often times the camera is too close to the action and the cuts happen much too frequently, preventing the audience from seeing that nothing very significant has been choreographed. However, Rob Marshall is a high profile Broadway director and choreographer, and understands that by keeping the camera at a distance, we can see the whole scene as it unfolds. The result is that all of the musical numbers are remarkably well staged, with the film cutting only briefly to emphasize a moment.

Being such a popular and ensemble-heavy show, there has been a lot of dream casting and hype-building rumors for each of the different parts. That said, before seeing the movie, it would be easy to argue that the studio went the safe route regarding casting. With a cast of primarily film – rather than theatre – actors, a lot of the casting decisions seem to have been made with the goal of simply selling the movie. While having bankable stars appear in the film likely persuaded the studios to put more money in the project, there’s no denying the talent of the actors in this movie though. Of all of the performers, Meryl Streep is the one who’s been getting much of the awards hype for this film, but I wouldn’t say that she necessarily gives the best performance in it. Don’t get me wrong, I think she does a fine job, but she merely serves her purpose rather than steal the show. However, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are both fantastic as the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella, respectively. James Corden is absolutely heartbreaking as the Baker, and Daniel Huttlestone continues to hold onto his monopoly of little boys in musicals (after he was Gavroche in 2012’s Les Miserables) as Jack. Lilia Crawford does a great job as Little Red Riding Hood, her screen debut (though she was recently the title role in Annie on Broadway). Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman both have great cameos in the film, and Johnny Depp does a decent job in his jazzy and uncomfortable 5 minutes of screen-time.

The film’s primary fault is just that it’s a movie instead of a stage production. What makes Into the Woods a weaker film from a movie-musical like Chicago is that Chicago utilizes the filmmaking medium to tell the story in a way that can’t happen on the stage. While the movie version of Into the Woods is able to create more elaborate sets and interesting cinematography, it’s very much just a simple recreation of the stage musical. While this isn’t an awful crime, it just makes the film a slightly inferior viewing option than seeing it live. Why is it inferior? Because seeing the musical live is an active experience, while watching the movie is more passive.

Another advantage that the stage musical has on the film is that there’s an intermission when the production is on stage, but having an intermission in a film is absolutely unheard of nowadays. Why having an intermission is extremely preferable with this story is because there’s essentially two movies going on here. The second half of the film is much darker than the first half, and having a clear division between the tonal shift allows for a much more smooth transition. Similarly, the second half of the film seems much more rushed than the first half. Numerous characters get absentmindedly cut out of the story, and a lot of the complexity that the second act of the musical has is lost. However, for a movie that is marketed towards kids, I could understand why the studios chose to cut some of the more violent and meta moments.

With all of that said though, Into the Woods is still a fantastic musical, and this relatively faithful adaptation makes for a decent movie. The strongest thing I can say is that this film makes the musical much more accessible to a much wider audience. It’s much easier to see a movie than see a Broadway production, so for that I can’t help but commend the movie. It’s very much worth the price of admission, and I’d highly recommend it if you haven’t seen the musical before. 7/10.

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