I watched Into the Woods with my wife, who is not a Sondheim fan, and had never seen the musical or known much about it, but she is a lover of fairy tales, so she is sort of the perfect guinea pig. Her verdict? She was pleasantly surprised. So, here’s the deal. Either you know the musical, love Stephen Sondheim or love fantasy and will see it, or you don’t and you won’t.
There’s no question that Into the Woods is a musical with a major pedigree. It premiered on Broadway in 1987 and took home the lion’s share of Tonys that year. It has since been mounted across the world followed by a plethora of revivals from LA to London and everywhere in between. So it’s been a long time in coming to film. Rob Marshall, the director who is somewhat responsible for bringing the musical back to the movies (Chicago) has the chops to successfully pull it off, and the power to draw none other than Meryl Streep into the package. So it’s a monster of a movie and will either be the death knell for this genre or another exciting installment in an all-ready impressive string of successful Broadway to the big screen adaptations.
Or not. My real world prediction is a moderate box office, a single Oscar nomination for performance and one more for music, and then it will fade into the VOD and pay TV milieu. Check back here in about a month and see how off the mark I am.
The problem in my mind is two-fold; the premise and the music. The premise is a mash-up of several Grimm’s fairy tales, all set in the same little village. A baker and his wife learn from a wicked witch that they are childless because of a curse she placed on his parents decades before. In order to lift the curse, the couple has to bring the witch a red cape, a milky white cow, silky hair as golden as corn and a golden shoe. So “into the woods,” they go, where they interact with Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack from the beanstalk and Rapunzel. All of the fairy tales have the one common “once upon a time wish” at the center of their stories, and the first half plays with how all the fairy tales intersect and how all the characters’ end up with their dreams coming true. The second half of the story follows what happens when you investigate what “happily ever after,” really means. Real world problems, the human element, and basically, reality take over to illustrate the flip-side of the fairy tale.
While this was a cute and smart idea for 1986, it feels a little creaky and a little too precious when taken in the context of our modern renderings of fairy tales, from Once Upon a Time, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm and a myriad of other fairy tale inspired TV shows flooding the market. The musical itself is a decidedly dark “take” on the fairy tale genre, but isn’t that what everything in modern entertainment is now – a dark “take” on some established genre or another?
As well, the play has two distinct acts; Act One is “Once Upon a Time…” and Act Two is “Once Upon a Time…later,” and that clear vivisection results in a much more structured and clean delineation. The film, instead, spends the first two thirds covering the first Act, and hardy enough time to equally handle the “meta” take on the fairy tale ending of Act Two. Once we begin to show the fantasy falling away and the human element enter the equation, the film sort of wraps itself up. This is not to say Into the Woods should be longer (it starts to drag midway through, as it is) but it should have a clearer “break.” Perhaps this is one of those perfect examples when a movie really could use an intermission to “reset” the tone.
My issue with the music is – this is going to sound horrible, I know – Sondheim is not catchy. As Tom Hanks said in That Thing You Do, “…it’s gotta be catchy, upbeat, peppy. ” People were singing the tunes from Chicago for months, were warbling Moulin Rouge songs endlessly, and replaying Frozen in their car stereo til the CD melted. This score, much like Les Miserables, is more operetta than musical; characters sing their dialogue most of the time. The lyrics are strong, but the tunes are tuneless. Again, if you like Sondheim, then you like that style, and you’ve already seen the musical and will go see the film. But if you don’t, you won’t. If you could handle two plus hours of Les Miserables, you can hang with Into the Woods. Besides Ann Hathaway’ song “I Dreamed a Dream,” though, can you hum any of the other pieces? No, but those who love Les Miz can. So in a way, Into the Woods, is review proof. Word of mouth will be the only thing to save the film and help bring a crossover crowd.
Everybody in it is solid. Anna Kendrick continues the dominance she started with Pitch Perfect, proving she’s the go-to actress/singer of the day. Emily Blunt proves as well she can hold her own in a musical environment, and thanks to Postcards from the Edge and Mamma Mia, Meryl Streep has long ago proven she is a musical maestro. The set design is gorgeous, the cinematography — first rate, and the special effects; magical.
Will you see Into the Woods? Again – it depends. My wife — the perfect test subject — left the theatre enjoying it. (She is admittedly a lover of fairy tales, but not a fan of the Sondheim and believes the music would have been the one element keeping her away.) Will you enjoy it? If you can’t get enough of Grimm, Sondheim and Disney, you will. If you don’t, you wont even go. Is Into the Woods even a “good” movie? Does that even matter?
Into the Woods opens nationwide today, Dec. 24th. For Your Consideration is a new feature that rounds-up and reviews late year entries that will probably hold some Oscar contention.
A great review! And dont forget this classic Sondheim murder mystery!
Thanks for the response!