It was only within the past week that I finally got around to watching last year’s musical movie spectacular: Into the Woods. I was already familiar with the story, having seen the stage play a couple of times back in my *cough* musical theater days in high school. It’s a fun story that is classic Sondheim — good and entertaining music that is easy to listen to. The music is definitely kind of catchy and will stick in your head for a few days after watching it, which is certainly not a complaint. It has a lot of humorous moments too, providing levity for the somewhat perilous adventure the main characters are thrust into. For those not familiar with the plot, it is a sort of fairy tale mashup, amalgamating different pieces of classic fairy tale lore into one story, and often self-referential humor that simultaneously pulls from and mocks the fairy tales from which Into the Woods takes its inspiration. Much of this is all a credit to the original screenplay and score, so while a great plus, isn’t really something the movie can take credit for. For the director, Rob Marshall, and his cast, it is really the interpretation and production value that can be critiqued.
Stylistically, Into the Woods was perfectly done. The dark and ominous lighting in a somewhat surreal fairy tale forest had a nice blend of mysticism and reality, which presents a very different feel than can be achieved on stage. The tone and quality of the singing was also pretty well done. The cast seemed well-balanced, and there is no doubting the acting and singing talents of Anna Kendrick or Emily Blunt. James Corden also definitely impressed as the Baker, especially for a comedic late night talk show host. And the kids seemed plucked straight from Broadway. But, to be sure, the main draw is Meryl Streep – proving, yet again, that she can do anything. She is captivating and talented and most certainly deserves the Best Supporting Actress nomination she got that year. Even so, my favorite scene was the Princes’ song, performed by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. It was funny and sufficiently self-aware to embrace the silliness of the song and the moment in the play. I laughed out loud as the two actors frolicked and pranced through a small stream-fed waterfall. The actors were mocking their fairy tale roots, with a tongue-in-cheek melodramatic scene. It’s all good fun.
I certainly enjoyed the film for the most part, and though it was pretty easy to pull off once the solid cast was cemented, the director did a good job of filling in the blanks. However, there were a few moments where the style seemed to fall apart and there were some inconsistencies with how the film sought to balance its stage play roots with the fact that it had a modern film’s CGI budget at its disposal. Why is there a CGI beanstalk and green-screened Giant, but the wolf is just Johnny Depp in a weird hat? Why did Little Red’s ingestion by the wolf look like a weird rip off of Shakira’s She-Wolf music video but we saw magical swirls of computer animation when the witch cast spells? It was in these moments that I felt the director lost some focus and could not make up his mind. Either stick wholly to a stage play feel with the costumed wolf and a make believe giant or simple voice over focus on the foot, like a play would see, or fully embrace the movie effects and make a singing CGI wolf. Either way would have worked, just look at how cool the new Jungle Book movie looks. But meeting half-way was odd and definitely distracted from the final product. I still think it is worth watching, but it is definitely not as good a final product as it could have been. Acting gets an A, but Directing gets a C+. Overall, a good film and definitely a fun story that’s worth watching if you enjoy musicals.