In the modern era of blockbusters, almost all the studio tentpole releases seem to have a plan to join up with a series of other films in the hopes of creating a Cinematic Universe. Marvel launched theirs over the course of 4 years, DC is well on its way and Universal made an abortive attempt at combining their monster movies, starting with the flop that was Dracula Untold. However, one could say that this tradition was in fact launched in 1986 by Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim’s Avengers-style mash-up of Disney fairytales. This unique spin on these classic tales provide the basis for an energetic and strikingly shot film adaptation, which manages to just about overcome the inherent weaknesses of its genre through a very charming cast.
The key characters for the story, The Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), are not directly based on any existing characters, but their quest to collect four objects demanded by a witch (Meryl Streep) in order to break an infertility curse brings them into the lives of many classic creations. They meet Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), amongst a large assortment of others. The second half of Into the Woods, after we’ve met all the characters already, is far weaker than the first, switching the focus to the united heroes facing off against a giant (Frances de la Tour) who has followed Jack down the beanstalk. It’s a very nebulous villain that never feels like a particularly real threat, and yet the focus on this struggle and the darkening of the tone once the giant arrives means that the film loses the humour that is its strongest element in the first half.
When Into the Woods becomes serious, the inescapable flaws of the fairytale musical become all too evident. Characters’ motivations and emotions turn on a sixpence every time a new song comes along. The tongue-in-cheek tone of the first act goes some way to remedying this problem, but the more obviously dramatic scenes lose a lot of impact when you know that any grief or tension can easily be dispelled three minutes later. The songs themselves are bouncy and entertaining, but not as immediately catchy or uplifting as in recent Disney musicals, although this really is a matter of personal taste. The song I enjoyed most by far was Prince Charming’s (Chris Pine, revealing some hidden comic talents) ‘Agony’, the best and funniest example of Sondheim’s skewering of the genre’s tropes.
Many of the musical numbers, aside from the bravura opening 10 minutes which take full advantage of the change in medium, are shot to look as if the audience is actually seeing them live in the theatre. At no point did this feel jarring or gimmicky, instead injecting a great change of pace and forcing the use of impressive physical sets. However, the use of this technique outside of the songs is slightly more frustrating, particularly when we see the giant – always obscured or slightly out of frame – which further detriments the tension the second half tries to build.
Fortunately, the lead characters are, generally, charmingly performed. Emily Blunt is great as the Baker’s Wife, bemused by the ridiculous situations she finds herself in and properly funny (as is the aforementioned Chris Pine), and James Corden is surprisingly solid in both the musical and non-musical scenes. Into the Woods also provides Johnny Depp with his least annoying role in years as the creepy, slightly paedophilic (risky territory for a family Disney film) Big Bad Wolf. However, Meryl Streep seems to be performing in a different movie to the rest of the cast, at points going full panto as the evil Witch whilst everyone else resists that urge. Although it may be blasphemous to call Streep the weak link of a cast, she is certainly not the star of the show here.
The fairytale musical, even one with the subversive undertones found here, is not a genre I am particularly fond of, so my opinions are perhaps not the most reliable, but I still enjoyed the film. Emily Blunt makes for a fantastic lead, and she has plenty of good support, whilst the whole thing never looks anything less than superb, from the art direction to the costumes. To be incredibly trite, Into the Woods is a film of two halves, and whilst the second act is underwhelming, the sheer sense of fun present in the beginning managed to keep my attention all the way to the end. Had it been a bit braver, perhaps the more problematic genre tropes could have been avoided, but as it is, Into the Woods is an entertaining, if clichéd, two hours of family entertainment.