Despite its glitzy all-star cast and picturesque Disney quality, it's not a film for everyone. An undoubted audience divider, this musical will either have you giddy in your seat for its entire two hour duration, or running for the hills as the endless monotonous singing begins to slowly erode at your sanity.
After many unsuccessful attempts of adapting Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical based on the Grimm fairytales to screen, Chicago director Rob Marshall has finally succeeded, with the help of Walt Disney Studios, to bring Into The Woods to life. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp, Into The Woods is a musical fantasy that intertwines the stories of several classic fairytale characters into one, whilst also exploring what happens after their happily ever afters.
The story revolves around a Baker and his wife (Corden and Blunt), who in an attempt to relieve themselves of a curse that renders them childless, set out into the woods to meet the demands of the Witch (Streep) who cursed them. The Witch requires only four things in exchange for the reversal of her wicked spell; “A cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold“. In order to acquire these items for the witch, the couple encounter and intercept the stories of Cinderella (Kendrick), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) and Jack, of the beanstalk legend (Daniel Huttlestone). However, even when the characters do win back their time-honoured endings, the realisation of how unhappy an ‘ever after’ can be hits them all hard and they must group together to overcome their troubles.
The cast, despite involving some big names, is a mixed bag. Meryl Streep, exudes the same air of fabulous gravitas as she always does in her role as The Witch; a character who is explored in depth in the film and portrayed as not only an evil sorceress, but also as a protective Mother to Rapunzel. Streep’s solo, ‘Stay With Me,’ strongly emphasises the latter side of her character, in a desperately heartfelt plea to her daughter not to enter the world outside her window. James Corden’s involvement in the film however, is slightly more annoying. Though a beloved comic actor for his roles in Gavin and Stacey and The Wrong Mans, he has recently become something of an irritant in other projects – his involvement as both star and narrator in this film, as in Roald Dahl’s Esio Trot earlier this year, becomes a bit too much for comfort. That said, his chemistry with Blunt – who proves herself to be a half-decent singer – is rather sweet, if a little overacted.
Kendrick’s performance as Cinderella is also interesting, as she tackles the character’s yearning desire to escape from her lowly position alongside the quiet doubt she holds about her Prince. Speaking of which, Chris Pine – though not the greatest of singers – as Prince Charming, provides what is arguably one of the standout scenes of the film, in which he and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) dramatically bellyache about the hardships of pursuing the maidens they desire in ‘Agony.’ The two child actors in the film, Crawford and Huttlestone – as Red Riding Hood and Jack – suffer from a perception of preened pretentiousness that follows all musical stars of their young age – Crawford in particular being rather tough to stomach as she belts out her songs with obnoxiously long-held notes. Johnny Depp as The Wolf is also rather disappointing. His song, ‘Hello Little Girl’ is undoubtedly creepy and unsettling to watch, whilst also serving as a reminder of his better efforts in another Sondheim musical, Sweeney Todd.
Despite being as picturesque and pristinely perfect as all Disney films are in its appearance, the film suffers most in its length. Although the average viewer might be able to tolerate, and even enjoy the first half of the film in which the stories we all know are established and interwoven admirably and include all the gruesome details such as toe-chopping and bramble-blinding, that are so frequently omitted in other versions of the tales, the second half of the film drags. Even though the aim of the story is to explore what happens after ‘happily ever after,’ the film takes so long in getting to it that by the time the twist happens, disinterest and fatigue hits. The ending doesn’t so much lack heart, but rather exploits it; By killing off certain characters and leading others into an ending that is much less favourable. While it could be argued that the ending actually conveys the inspiring message of togetherness at the worst of times, the fact is that the film does not in itself gel together as well as it might on stage – possibly because unlike a stage musical, audiences are not given an interval from the extremity of it all. The wit that Sondheim musicals are noted for, also sadly begins to wear off towards the film’s conclusion.
The film, alike the majority of its musical kin, is an audience divider. While some may be fully enamoured by its charm, others will not be so easily convinced. Though an interesting premise from a beloved musical and with a cast that promises quality, the film – sad as it may be – was rather mangled in the editing room, and proves that it’s not just the characters who have to deal with the disappointment after an ending.
Into The Woods (2015), directed by Rob Marshall, is released in UK cinemas by Walt Disney Pictures, Certificate PG.