Into the Woods

Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale mashup gives us the magic in act one,  then uses act two to try to teach us something deeper about being a failed, jaded adult. That second hour is irredeemable drudgery, as the story betrays itself and the audience and  drags  to a lame finish.——————

Directed by Rob Marshall
Starring: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen
Review: 2.5 stars (of five)

Into The Woods has a lively first half and a finish that is unendurably long, cruelly downbeat, and essentially heartless. The high points of the first half are not worth sitting through the second half, unless you’re a hardcore fan of musical theater or Chris Pine.

Woods01The 1986 Sondheim musical smooshes Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk into a shared world that revolves around a new story involving a childless couple, bakers, who must strive to undo the witch’s curse that condemns them to unwanted childlessness. The wish of the bakers is the entry point to the story, as each character’s life revolves around “I wish …”

Halfway through the story, everyone’s wish comes true, and just as the words “Happily ever after” are being pronounced, it all goes wrong, largely as the characters’ wishes somehow prove their undoing. The second act, while containing less entertaining musical numbers, walks us through the cast’s dreary destruction as hearts are betrayed, good people die, wholesale destruction occurs (mostly off-camera), and we are taught not merely “be careful what you wish for,” but that it would’ve been better not to wish at all, not to enter the woods of mystery, magic and possibility, for that way lies heartbreak. Woods03The only upside: The broken survivors get to pass their stories down, not as lessons to help the next generation be more successful, but because that’s what our fairy tales are: sugared distortions of life’s misery and failure.

Is that the message you were hoping for, particularly in a film opening Christmas Day? Me neither. Wikipedia calls the story “a meaningful tale about responsibility,” but that’s not what comes across here. It’s not about “the problems and consequences that come from wishes,” but about people failing, fate being spiteful, and the odds being stacked against us. If I wanted that, I’d watch a documentary.

There are some good elements:

  • The production straddles a soundstage theatricality that suits the material and the “reality” that a big-screen fantasy movie should convey. It looks good.
  • The chemistry between James Corden and Emily Blunt as Baker and Wife
  • Meryl Streep, delightfully over the top as the witch.
  • Every scene that doesn’t feature the grating, obnoxious Little Red Riding Hood character is a scene that doesn’t feature the grating, obnoxious Little Red Riding Hood character.
  • Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince, in a duet with his brother, played by Billy Magnussen, is such a preening, joyously scenery-chewing slice of magnificence, he nearly redeems the whole overlong film.

Nonetheless, the cleverness and life of the first half are dragged down by unpleasant story choices that don’t support a more meaningful analysis of fairy tales or real life, beyond “abandon all hope.” And even if the film’s conclusion were worthy, it takes entirely too long to get there. I cannot remember checking my watch more often in a theater.

Recommendation: Skip it, and when it hits Netflix/iTunes, watch the first half, or even just the Chris Pine/Billy Magnussen number, which alone is worth four bucks for a rental.