Into the Woods is a strange Witch’s concoction – a rarity from its inception, its old-school big-studio musical style places it in a genre from a bygone era. The plot is uneven, its emotional tones overlap too quickly, and its narrative intersections are too often painfully contrived. It might seem rich expecting more from a film based on fairytales, but the film’s subversive second half shows director Rob Marshall’s willingness to experiment with the drummed-into-the-ground fairytale character arcs and archetypes.
But let’s backtrack. Into the Woods is a hotchpotch musical throwback, based on numerous fairytales which intertwine, often tenuously, inside a mysterious woodland realm. Amongst the ensemble are the characters and segmented tales of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack (replete with Beanstalk) and Rapunzel, amongst others. It’s as if the local panto was inexplicably given fifty million dollars: instead of d-list celebs swanning about the stage in search of self-affirmation, it’s Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and co.
So what about the songs? Sondheim’s lyrics are reliably verbose and impressively erudite, managing a few moments of true mastery in the weaving of different characters into a common refrain. No one will claim the tunes themselves are classics however, and you’ll struggle to sing more than a few of them after exiting the cinema.
There is some saving grace however. Splitting neatly into two halves, the film becomes infinitely more interesting after the midway point. It looks as if the film is wrapping up to an entirely expected Happily Ever After, before ripping the pretence down completely. Refreshing and subversive, this re-appropriation is an adrenaline shot to the picture, and indeed the languishing audience. Post-midway, the songs click into place, their bite felt more with something original to seek their teeth into. The characters are forced out of their established roles, and progressive morals germinate from this most unexpected of fanciful flowerbeds.
After the point where most fairytales close the book, the characters of Into the Woods break loose from their chains: Princesses talk of female independence, peasants fraternise with princes (Pine’s Prince is revealed to be all surface: ‘I was raised to be Charming not sincere’), causality and the notion of personal blame is debated. It is in this fallen paradise that the film finds unique voice, delivering atypical, ascerbic humour which finally raises laughs (after an hour of titters at best).
There are moments outlying the norm in the first half – it is more darkly violent than anticipated, a nice honouring of the fairytale genre’s Grimm past – but they are inconsistent (fast becoming a theme). Depp’s Wolf is devilishly disturbing, but tempered by blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screentime, and hampered by a non-cohesive wardrobe and tone from the rest of the cast. Emily Blunt, playing the baker’s wife here in a narrative composed to bring all the others together, is the only thespian who strikes the correct tone all the way through. She lands between parody and melodrama without ever fully indulging each. The rest swing like metronomes between the two poles, sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes falling well short.
James Corden, Blunt’s baker husband, provides his second completely unnecessary, patronising narration in less than a month – the previous being in the BBC’s otherwise heart-warming ‘Esio Trot’ – which mercifully follows the film’s theme of inconsistency, not persisting, it seems, past about the two thirds mark. Otherwise, his performance is bearable (admittedly I’m not a fan) and he even raised a few chuckles somewhere in the mix.
Into the Woods’ biggest failing is its uneven register – the much darker source material does not take well to its Disney host, who rejects some of the material completely by cutting away from key scenes and letting the worst happen off screen. It is a cop out, unevenly squared with the continuing lyrical subversion of Sondheim’s superior stage production. There is much to love in the film, but there is much more to be frustrated by. I was eventually won round by the post-happy-end collection of aborted narratives, I just wish it had taken less time to get there.