Mark Reviews Movies

Into the Woods


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rob Marshall

Cast: Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Chris Pine, Mackenzie Mauzy, Tracey Ullman, Billy Magnussen, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Richard Glover, Johnny Depp

MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material)

Running Time: 2:04

Release Date: 12/25/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2014

What works on the stage does not necessarily work on the screen. That should be a point as obvious as some of Steven Sondheim's lyrics in Into the Woods. "The woods are just trees / The trees are just wood," sings one of the fairy-tale characters before and after she and a group of other characters sing that they're going—you guessed it—"into the woods."

The literalism of the lyrics makes a certain kind of sense for the stage. The woods behind a proscenium arch clearly are not real. They're pieces of set. The art of theater is representing reality through illusion. The art of cinema is presenting an illusion that appears to be reality. We don't really need to be told of what things the woods are made or, for that matter, of what material the things that make up the woods are made. In a play, we can forgive that sort of excessive description as a part of maintaining the illusion. In a movie, it's much more difficult to excuse.

It's a matter of the level of separation from the audience. In the theater, we're watching these characters go into the woods. On the screen, we're going into the woods with them, and while these woods may also be set pieces, we accept them more along the lines of reality than of illusion.

That's not to say that one form is inferior or superior to the other. It's just to say that they're intrinsically different entities, and James Lapine (who also wrote the screenplay) and Sondheim's musical is fundamentally a work of theater. The movie version has the nearly impossible task of remaining true to those origins while translating the material for a wholly distinct medium.

It's a no-win scenario, really, and it doesn't help that director Rob Marshall tepidly approaches the challenge. His method is at odds with the material. It resides safely in the distanced shots of a filmed stage production when the material cries out for a more visually imaginative approach. Meanwhile, it provides those more "cinematic" diversions when the material is already doing the heavy lifting in the imagination department.

The story itself, which follows a collection of characters from Grimm Brothers' fairy tales as their paths cross and their destinies veer from tradition, is amusingly clever. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is indecisive about the Prince (Chris Pine, hamming it up with refreshingly wild abandon). Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) meets a wolf (Johnny Depp) in the forest and has an awakening that leaves her "excited and scared." Jack (Daniel Huttlestone)—he of fairy-tale fame for a beanstalk that resulted from poor bartering skills—needs to sell his beloved cow, and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is here, too. The characters are connected by a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who must collect items from the others to appease a blue-haired witch (Meryl Streep) who has put a curse of childlessness on their home.

As an example of those aforementioned "cinematic diversions," take a scene in which Jack sings about his experience in a house in the sky where giants live. A good number of Sondheim's songs here concern where characters have been, where they are, or where are they going. That makes perfect sense if one considers that the theater is a medium of telling (or, in this case, singing), whereas film is a medium of showing.

There's a general sense that Marshall is arbitrarily splitting the difference, and that feeling is especially strong during Jack's song about the giants' dwelling. Ignoring the roundabout certainty of his lyrics here for a moment, Sondheim's music in this scene is as much a narrative tool as it is a melody. Note the way the music gradually swells as Jack describes with mounting awe what he has seen and how it drops in tandem with his story as he heads down the beanstalk to the comforting familiarity of his home. In a rather redundant move, Marshall inserts shots of Jack's climb and descent on the beanstalk when the song notes them. The fact that we never see the giants in these flashbacks suggests that Marshall understands the song's purpose, making the choice even stranger.

The central problem of the movie is one of redundancy. In a way, it's unavoidable, given the mixture of the literal nature of Sondheim's songs and Marshall's straightforward approach. We get songs loaded with exposition that become unnecessary as the movie shows us that background information, or maybe we get scenes of visual exposition that are superfluous because the songs tell us what we need to know. Either way, it quickly grows tedious, although a few tunes that exist solely to elaborate on the characters' dilemmas fare better (The highlight is a duet between fraternal princes arguing about which one is in greater agony over his love).

In the second half of Into the Woods, Lapine and Sondheim switch modes to a more subversive aim. In its infusion of dark pragmatism into the events after an interrupted happy ending, this side of the story—of fantasy imbued with harsh reality—plays better than what has come before it. That it doesn't have the emotional or moral impact the material is going for, though, is yet another result of its rickety cinematic foundation.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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