Into the Woods, based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical, is one that has established a solid and proclaimed reputation among the theatre community and corresponding gathered a large number of musical fans. Rob Marshall’s adaption is a brighter star in the category of modern musical films, but while it remains faithful to most of the original material, it suffers from an unimaginative and rather bland retelling from stage to screen.
There are many things to admire about Into the Woods. In fact, the film’s strength stems from its clear loyalty to the musical. The complexity of its lyrics, the integrity of the music, and its smart yet dark themes are all generally delivered well by its star-studded cast. The limited setting of the ‘woods’ as a central premise of the musical serves as a clear metaphor in both mediums, yet whilst it operates successfully on a small stage, feels slightly tedious in a medium that allows for such vast and wide possibilities. Marshall’s intentions to remain and use as little CGI as possible may offer a more authentic production design, but it doesn’t assist in creating a more beautiful look to his film. His unwillingness to stretch beyond the original material results in a lack of depth to appeal to a broader audience. However, theatre fans will be pleased with what has been presented, because unlike Clint Eastwood’s monotonous Jersey Boys, Marshall doesn’t try to steer away from the musical – he allows Sondheim’s original material to shine.
In terms of cast, star-studded or not, Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep impress as the Baker’s Wife and The Witch respectively. Blunt showcases her surprising vocal talents, whilst giving a stunning performance alongside James Corden. The casting overall is a good mix of theatre veterans and Hollywood stars, allowing it to remain mainstream yet also include a good deal of theatre talent within. Streep gives a haunting rendition of ‘Last Midnight’, and pulls out her always reliable acting guns for ‘No One is Alone’ – where she delivers a deeply affecting performance. Additionally, the rest of the ensemble, stemming from Chris Pine (Prince), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) to Lilla Crawford (Red Riding Hood) provides a strong support to essential storylines of the musical.
One of the best things about this film is hearing the original music through a bigger piece orchestra – and to be honest, it emits quite the emotional response as well. Yet, while it contributes to a momentary amount of enjoyment, which the first act of the film manages to achieve, the second act of the film loses consistency, and contributes to a convoluted mess. In the stage musical, each act balances and matches each other in running time approximately. But the film’s choice to unevenly split the musical up leaves unexplained absences in character development, and consequently feels rushed. It is this last act which allows for darker undercurrents to envelop the otherwise ‘happily ever after’ – but Marshall’s (or Disney’s) decision to avoid exploring such storylines as Rapunzel’s destiny, means it never fully reaches the strength of the musical’s showcasing of its themes. Similarly, the cut of ‘Agony (Reprise)’ creates plot holes in the predicament of certain characters and evades the development of those darker themes, whilst simultaneously withdrawing some of its biting hilarity.
With Disney’s planned 2015 release of the traditional princess story of Cinderella, the film certainly marks a commendable effort from Disney, venturing on a darker tale ‘into the woods’. But it is Marshall’s failure to flesh out and exhibit a more ambitious vision, which contributes to a rather lacking retelling of its stage predecessor.
By Debbie Zhou
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