You can say that I’ve seen a lot of three star movies this year. To the credit of Into the Woods, this is the best movie that I’ve given three stars to in a while. This movie has aspects that are amazing and has songs and performances that I loved yet there are problems with the movie that are too big for me to ignore. Still, this is an entertaining film and should be seen even if my rating for the film is disappointingly low.
For those like me who didn’t know about the beloved Stephen Sondheim Broadway play walking in, Into the Woods is a musical that connects most of the famous Brothers Grimm fables into one story. A Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) want to have a baby but a witch (Meryl Streep) has a curse on the Baker’s family that keeps him from having a child. To have the curse reversed from the witch, they have to find a red cape, a golden slipper, a white cow and golden hair.
When I was hearing about this movie, a lot of people were calling Steven Sondheim a genius and we’re praising how great the music is. Having seen it, Into the Woods truthfully has some of the most impressive numbers I’ve seen in a musical maybe since the 60’s. Stephen Sondheim has an extreme talent in writing catchy as hell songs and lyrics. Don’t be worried that most of the story is told in song. Unlike Les Misérables, all the songs here feel necessary in moving the story forward and revealing character and they don’t come off as cluttered and lacking in atmosphere. I had no problem with the story being told with music and the movie soars when it’s doing just that. All the actors maybe with the exception of Lilla Crawford do an exceptional job singing the songs and Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt are especially on their A game. Whatever problems I had with Into the Woods aren’t the problem of the music and you should look beyond that if that’s the things that keeping you from checking this out.
This is a movie that seems to have had a lot of people working on it in the technical field that clearly cared about the material. All of the areas like the production design and the costume design do a good job getting a classical fable tone to the setting with the houses look and especially with what different characters are wearing. The make-up is top notch and what they did to Meryl Streep in particular is awesome in making her go from a very hideous witch to a beautiful witch. As with most musicals, you have to admire the sound design because they have to mix together what is happening in the scene, the singing of the performer and the music throughout. Seeing how stable this musical was in comparison to others I’ve seen as of late, this makes the sound design that much more worthy of praise.
I mentioned above that the cast is really great and I stay with that statement. I think Meryl Streep is extremely talented but she has been doing a great job in fairly mediocre films for some time. While her character is the messiest, she still is given a lot more here and she delivers her best performance since Doubt. The witch has the most memorable songs in the movie and Streep rises to the occasion whole-heartedly. She is putting her heart into every note and it’s a perfect mixture of dedication and sheer fun with the part she has to play. The Last Midnight song is probably my favorite scene and that part alone makes it one of the best supporting actress performances of the year. Meryl Streep will get an Oscar nomination and for once it’ll be in a role that challenged her and showed a different side of her acting chops. Meryl Streep isn’t the only great actor in the films ensemble. Emily Blunt shines every time she’s in it and much like Streep she seems to be putting her heart into it. Chris Pine as Prince Charming and Anna Kendrick as Cinderella both have moments where they get to show off their acting and singing chops. I haven’t seen James Corden in a lot but between this and Begin Again; he shows a charisma and confidence that shows the potential of a future strong leading man. And while they’re the weakest singers, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone both give strong enough debut performances as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack. I didn’t even mind Johnny Depp as The Wolf. This is coming from a guy that thinks Depp one of the weakest actors working in Hollywood today. You get the sense that it’s made up of actors who really enjoyed the source material and wanted to present it in the best way they were able. This kind of enthusiasm from an entire cast is rare and really nice to see every once in a while.
From the first chunk, you’re probably curious why I’m giving this such a low score. My praise comes from a genuine love I had towards a lot of things about Into the Woods. For the first maybe 90 minutes or so, this movie is around a 4 star rating. It’s this huge, epic blend of music, story and performances and it does a great job mixing together these different ideas and showing the different morals these people learned and how they are all connected. You have a lot of fun but at the same time it can be serious and it can say things about responsibility and ambition. There are a lot of sympathetic characters and it’s one of the quickest sits this year. All this movie needed to do was stick the ending and it might even have made my top ten. Unfortunately the film doesn’t end well…oh boy does it not end well.
There’s a point where the director obviously wants you to think that it’s going to end soon. And when they’re just about to conclude, something big happens and it doesn’t end for another thirty or so minutes. I’m not saying that some of the themes and ideas it tries to express in these final thirty minutes aren’t valid. In a better scenario, I can see some of the stuff it brings up being used brilliantly to show a contrast between the lighter first half and a much darker second half and how life really is. In the actual play, the stuff in the last thirty minutes makes up part two of the two part play. I haven’t seen the play, but from this you can assume that equal time is spent on these areas. Here’s the gigantic error with the film, 90 minutes are spent on the first act and a measly 30 minutes are spent on the second act. This stuns me that they even thought they could make a stable, well-paced play in going this route. I don’t care whether it was them trying to keep from making a three hour movie or whether it was them trying to keep it PG, it doesn’t matter and the fact remains the same. Act two is a complete train wreck.
I shouldn’t even have to explain why this didn’t work, you’re trying to tell this deep, powerful message and you’re jamming everything together in a very short amount of time. Important characters die in the most rushed and confusing ways possible and the other characters aren’t given enough time to fully react to what has happened in way that makes the audience care. Whatever chances are left of giving The Witch a solid character arc are gone and the way she exits the story makes no possible sense. You’re given all these things that are meant to mean something but I got so much whiplash from what was happening that none of it affected me or felt very successful in being impactful. Whatever momentum was built by the first act collapses in this cluttered mess of a second act. If the first act is 4 stars then the second act is probably around two stars. The sad part is that the music gets even better in the second act and you can see how in a three hour play these songs would be awe inspiring, here they just feel wasted. It fascinates me why they did this and why they would throw away what had for a while been a true return to a once proud genre.
There are plenty of things that are amazing about Into the Woods like the performances and the A+ music. The first act alone is definitely worth a watch. Sadly, to imitate one of the most famous song lines of the musical, I wish they hadn’t tried to squish an epic, big second act into a short period of time. Into the Woods isn’t just a disappointment for what it could’ve been but also for at a point what it actually was.
Release Date: 12/25/2014
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford and Johnny Depp
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Screenplay by: James Lapine