Into the Woods (2014)

INTO THE WOODS

Y’know, if you’re going to PG-13ify something like this, at least crank up the camp and let the seriousness slide away a little bit. By the second half it’s shot almost entirely in the titular woods (played with aplomb by Helena Bonham Carter) and everything is muted green, greys and browns. It’s remarkably painful to watch at times, so bland is the camerawork. Like, you’re given four fairy tales to spin into gold and the sole moment of visual intrigue you can provide is a brief Alice in Wonderland homage?

James Corden is startlingly bland as the Baker, an uncharismatic borderline non-entity in a film that feels obsessed with him when he’s about as interesting as the dough he kneads. A narrator here should convey wonderment and grandeur but he sounds like he’s introducing a new brand of water cracker. He’s propped up a hell of a lot by a great Emily Blunt performance, but my god, imagine if she weren’t there to make him look better.

Meryl’s pretty good too, though her Witch’s emotional beats fall kind of flat courtesy of inept pacing that saps even the better songs of some of their impact. Otherwise the cast is pretty uniformly good (though I’d happily have offered up Huttlestone to the giant, and Johnny Depp needs to take a decade off), with Chris Pine proving a stand-out playing a pretty unique and fun fusion of poncey and douchey. Special mention to Christine Baranski and Lucy Punch for making the most of distressingly small roles.

Into the Woods‘ crumbliness suggests that Marshall doesn’t know what the musical means as a movie. He’s made this with little concern for how it reflects on a broader cinematic canon of fairy tale adaptations; in a way, it almost feels as though he doesn’t quite understand the deconstructionist bent of Sondheim’s book. It looks pretty ugly – we get it, sunlight filtering through trees, augh – particularly the giant stuff which is almost inexcusably lazy. I understand the impulse to refrain from covering well-trod territory like Cinderella’s ball or Jack’s sky-high excursions, but it ultimately makes the film feel less than whole and even more staccato.

Truthfully, there’s not enough here to sustain the running time and it becomes almost numbing in the final act, such that the already fairly anticlimactic ending fails to feel pointedly so. It’s all the more frustrating to watch because it so obviously could have been great and ravishing and fun and silly and dark in equal measure. I think Into the Woods sums itself up nicely when, during “Agony!”, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s grandstanding stops just short of them tearing their shirts off in a waterfall. A great adaptation of this would’ve done more than just pop a couple of buttons.

★★☆

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