Dark fairy tales are all the rage at the moment. With authors like Neil Gaiman proving popular and cinema adaptations of classic Disney fare like Snow White and Maleficient, it seems like the classic stories are back in vogue. Therefore, an adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, seemed like an inevitability. The musical tells the story of several classic fairy tale characters; Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, but rather than ending the stories at the traditional time, we go beyond that and see what happens after the happily ever after. Sadly, it’s not quite as happy as you might suppose.
Which leads us to the film. Directed by Rob Marshall, it tells pretty much the same story. A baker and his wife are visited by a witch, who tells them that in order to have a child, they must first lift a curse. Of course, the witch is the one who has placed said curse and she wishes for them to bring her a cloak as red as blood, hair as golden as corn, a cow as white as milk and a shoe as pure as gold. So far, so simple. Of course, once all these wishes are fulfilled, not everything turns out as happy as you might expect.
Sadly, it’s not only the characters on-screen who face this disappointment, because this just isn’t very good. You are left with an overly confused narrative, jam-packed with characters that you either struggle to like or down right hate. James Corden never leaves annoying behind as the baker, while you can’t help secretly praying that Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t emerge from the wolves belly, so much do you just wish her to go away by the end of the film. Elsewhere, it appears that Johnny Depp signed up for a much darker film than the rest of the cast, as his predatory wolf slinks into the shot. He’s not actually bad and in many ways might be playing in the film we want to see, but compared to the light-hearted tone of everything else, he stands out like a sore thumb.
The biggest crime however, is that the songs just don’t come across that well. I have never seen the original play, but it appears to have had quite a lot of success. Whether the songs are stronger in their natural habitat or not I don’t know, but in this film they are all just a bit bland. There are very few that stand out and if you asked me to try to hum you the vast majority of them today, I would struggle. For a musical, that is an instant problem. These songs should be stuck in your head for weeks after the fact, you only have to look at the success of Frozen, to see how important that is.
Of course, not everything is awful. There is some amusement here. Most of which comes from Chris Pine as Prince Charming. It sounds like a back-handed compliment, but he plays one-dimensional brilliantly. The best part of the film comes when him and his brother perform “Agony” (one of the few songs I can remember) a song that see’s them competing as to who is more in love with their princess, while splashing through a river. Meryl Streep is also Meryl Streep meaning her turn as the witch is great fun. Whether it is Oscar worthy, as it was announced yesterday, is very debatable and the question has to be raised as to whether anyone else giving the same performance would have got the same nod. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Meryl is Meryl and there is a reason she is widely known as our greatest living actress.
Elsewhere, Anna Kendrick continues to be a charming screen presence, it’s hard to dislike her portrayal of Cinderella, who has a lot more independence than the traditional character. While Emily Blunt does a serviceable job as the Baker’s Wife. Once again, I think most of that is down to her being another very likable screen personality and it has to be said the final moments of her character are worrying from a feminist point of view.
None of this saves what is ultimately at best a highly flawed film and at worst a complete mess. What should be a magical romp through a ridiculous world that underneath, that surface is actually quite dark, is in the end a damp squib. The darkness never truly emerges and the characters, minus the few I mentioned, are ultimately unlikable. The story meanwhile never seems to really get going. It all just seems a bit easy and you never really feel any peril for most of the characters. It may be easy to see what Into the Woods was trying to do, but ultimately it has failed at its task.