Into the Woods is eighty minutes of energy and joy followed by forty more of tiresome, by-the-numbers visual effects. The drop-off in quality is notable. It’s a shame, as the first two-thirds are filled with crowd-pleasing tunes, beautiful set designs, and a playfulness that jumps off the screen. All of that fizzles in the final third, as CGI takes center stage and the story reverts into an elongated stroll through the familiar.
As the movie opens, The Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) are looking forward to starting their family. Unfortunately for them, a curse has been put on their ability to procreate by The Witch (Streep). In order for the curse to be lifted, Baker must find four objects in the woods: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper a pure as gold. The adventure takes the two through intertwining stories involving the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood.
Beginning with a rousing, exposition-filled opening number, Into the Woods dispenses with the story setup in its first ten minutes. This leaves plenty of time for Baker and his wife to have encounters throughout the woods as they scramble to get all the items The Witch has requested. Like most fairy tales, Into the Woods has some dark story elements that may be too intense for younger viewers. An encounter with The Wolf (Johnny Depp) is unsettling, as is a scene when a toe and heel are severed (off-screen, of course) in an attempt to fit in Cinderella’s slipper. Director Rob Marshall conducts the main story with gorgeous visuals and spirited music before turning the palette dark and moody for the much more serious final act. It’s a tonal shift the film never recovers from.
Marshall does have a loaded cast at his disposal, and they’re quite good for the most part. Corden and Blunt carry the core story, with Corden stealing many scenes with his charisma alone. Meryl Streep is effective as The Witch, clearly gobbling scenery with a loving wink. She’s given plenty of opportunities to slither around the sets and bark orders. Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine don’t fare as well. Both seem to be in a bit over their heads, even if their vocal performances are satisfactory. Depp, in a bit role, might actually be the most subtle part of the whole movie. Try and process that.
Into the Woods would have made for a succinct ninety-minute movie. Instead, Marshall and writer James Lapine, adapting from his and Stephen Sondheim’s musical, carry over a darker, more conventional third act that just doesn’t gel. Fans of musicals will find plenty to like in Into the Woods. The weaving of four fairy tales into one world remains clever enough even though it’s been parodied plenty of times (namely by the Shrek films). Just watch out for when the big Disney CGI machine takes over and washes away a significant amount of the built-up goodwill.
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Length: 124 Minutes
Rating: PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2014
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: James Lapine. Based upon the musical by Stephen Sondheim & Lapine.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine