No studio knows musicals quite like Disney. From Beauty and the Beast and the earlier animated classics to the live action Mary Poppins, Walt Disney Pictures has always been a studio that prides itself in telling stories through music. Of course, not every Disney production is a musical, which is one of the main reasons Frozen was considered a return-to-form for the studio (even though Tangled was apparently overlooked and/or forgotten about in the tornado of Frozen-hype). The Pixar films are considered by pretty much everyone to be the best of the bunch, and the latest Disney original animated films (Wreck-it Ralph, Big Hero 6) have been great as well. Into the Woods is an interesting story. It’s the first live action musical from Disney in ages, and it’s the best sounding musical since Les Miserables (what else has there been really, besides the awful Jersey Boys and Annie?) “Best sounding” doesn’t necessarily mean “best movie” though, because there are moments in Into the Woods that drag, and I had a major issue with the final act. But for anyone that loves good music mixed with fairy tales, Chris Pine singing about the tragedy of losing his potential bride (Cinderella) and Johnny Depp wearing whiskers while singing about devouring Little Red Riding Hood, this is the movie for you.
If you aren’t familiar with the Broadway musical, allow me to fill you in on the basic elements that drive the story. In a sort of aggregation of classic fairy tale stories by the Brothers Grimm, Into the Woods finds Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk), and Rapunzel crossing paths in ways only desperation for a family could allow. The two main characters of the film, The Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), are longing to have a family. They’re poor, unable to conceive, and barely making it by as bakers and sellers of bread in their small village. But that all changes when The Witch (a wicked and fierce Meryl Streep) storms into their shop, babbling about a curse she put on them because of some kind of garden encroachment by his father. In order to have the curse lifted, they need to go into the woods to find her four essential items: a cloak as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold (see if you can figure out who those belong to).
Once they embark on their journey, we get a lot of good stuff. Some real good stuff, if I must be honest, including some musical numbers by some talented actors. As The Baker and The Baker’s Wife, James Corden and Emily Blunt may not share great husband-wife chemistry, but as individuals that eventually get separated to retrieve certain artifacts, they deliver fine work. Blunt is especially good in her second knockout role of 2014 (see Edge of Tomorrow). It’s their story, so it’s no surprise that characters like Cinderella’s Prince (a hilariously bizarre Chris Pine), The Wolf (Johnny Depp, in a creepy and interesting musical tour de force that we don’t get to see much of in his career), and Cinderella’s Evil Stepsisters (Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard, both annoying in their roles) don’t get as much screen time as the other more significant players. Evened out throughout the crisscrossing of fairy tales are the main players. Anna Kendrick, who is usually cheerful and bubbly, seems to step out of her comfort zone for Cinderella and she gives a congenial performance. She’s easily the highlight of the threefold band of heroines. As Rapunzel, MacKenzie Mauzy is just there, not doing anything memorable at all (and neither does her storyline in the script). And don’t even get me started on Lilla Crawford, the little girl who played Little Red Riding Hood, whose scenes made me cringe on more than one occasion. At least she had a decent singing voice, as does everyone in the film really.
She isn’t the movie’s only problem, though, and you can be sure of that. Like most musicals, a few songs here and there don’t quite hit their mark and they overstay their welcome. The singing is never deficient, so that’s a plus, but sometimes the film creeps into gutters that it doesn’t seem like it will crawl out of (it usually does, thankfully). Another thing that I really didn’t like about the movie was the finale, and by the finale I mean the final thirty minutes. It’s admirable that Disney did a kind of fake-out-happy-ending and I didn’t have a problem with that, but I found the events in the final act to be more yawn-worthy and almost excruciating than the first two acts of the film. Said events have a lot to do with Jack’s character (by the way, Daniel Huttlestone is terrifically awesome as Jack), and they seemed to me to be forced and a bit conventional.
As a musical, though, it’s hard not to walk out of Into the Woods without enjoying it on any level at all. The music is very good, each actor delivering sturdy vocals while whimsical tunes play in the background, and that’s the one major requirement from a musical. Something else the film has is its variety of standout scenes, and of them, two big ones come to mind. The first and most notable is the Wolf scene in which Johnny Depp sings Sweeney Todd style about devouring Little Red Riding Hood. What’s difficult is determining whether he is talking about devouring her for food or molesting her. It’s a creepy scene, an adult-oriented one, and one that will surely frighten younger children. For me, it worked. Depp needs to find his footing as an actor again, but as the Wolf, he laid on the chills. The other scene is “Agony,” a song sung by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince). That entire scene is satirically funny and maybe the best scene in the entire film.
Into the Woods is an enjoyable musical, not as good as some musicals in the past decade but definitely better than a lot of them. Its best elements are the story (the crossings of the Grimm tales is seriously cool), the singing, and the performances (man, Chris Pine). I haven’t seen the Broadway play so I can’t say if the movie is artistically inventive in terms of the script, but the music is all I cared about and it got me there. The pacing issues and the crushing final act drag it down for me, but in the end, the movie is enjoyable and proves to be some dark and bold filmmaking that we should applauding Disney for having the balls to make.
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Starring James Corden, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Lilla Crawford, Chris Pine, and Johnny Depp
Written by James Lapine
Directed by Rob Marshall