Three Minute Review: “Into The Woods,” Charming Chaos

The long-awaited film“Into The Woods,” is a charming, poised and magical production, but it is still a fairly mashed together musical, representing something a successful artist might write when he or she was out of ideas. This is kind of like Paul McCartney writing a children’s book or Steve Martin writing an opera. You know there’s a lot of talent there, but maybe the lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim should have waited until a better idea came along.

Much about “Into The Woods” feels forced. The woods themselves are not particularly relevant at all, except by coincidence. Little Red Riding Hoods traipses through. Rapunzel lives in stone tower in a secluded section of the forest. A few other characters live in or nearby. But otherwise, this might just as well be “Into the Meadow.” Why it’s the woods is not particularly meaningful, except that it defines a time when woods were more menacing than they are today.

Here, there are at least five childhood fables intertwined into one story, including Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk, the Childless Baker and his Wife, along with the other two already mentioned. These tales are tied together by an old witch (played by Meryl Streep), who wants to look young again and can do so only if the baker and his wife collect four items, including some of Rapunzel’s hair, Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, one of Cinderella’s shoes and a cow as white as milk. Off into the woods they go and, just their luck, Jack of the beanstalk fame is about to sell an all-white cow and has to pass through the woods to get to the market.

In order for all this to work out, Sondheim, who has eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Price to his name, alters each of the fables freely, so that the Baker (played by James Corden) kills the Wolf (played by Johnny Depp), who has eaten Little Red Riding Hood (played by Lilla Crawford) and her grandmother, so he can retrieve the cape. His wife, meanwhile, chances upon Rapunzel’s tower and yanks off some of her hair, but this occurs after she has bumped into Cinderella, who is fleeing the advances of a prince she has met at a festival at the castle. Another prince, whose connection to all this is puzzling, is in pursuit of Rapunzel, and climbs her hair for trysts, but it turns out Rapunzel is the witch’s daughter and the she is not keen on losing her daughter to a suitor. To keep her out of harm’s way, she moves Rapunzel from the tower to a swamp, where she is pretty quickly found, anyway.

Rather than whimsical merrymaking, this just looks like chaos and coincidence. The set ups are not particularly comedic or frightening; it just seems to be that if you love these fairy tales and Sondheim’s talents, that you are supposed to enjoy the show and leave well enough alone. What have you wasted? Two hours and ten bucks?

The movie released on Christmas Day, directed by Rob Marshall, includes a solid cast, including Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella), Emily Blunt (as the baker’s Wife) and two box office veterans in Streep and Depp. But these are tough roles, not because these pros don’t try to put some valued depth into each performances, but because there isn’t any focus in the show to give that depth any meaning. Depp, for example, plays a suave, hungry, wolf with a broad-brimmed hat and a wide tie, but this doesn’t add to his character very much, except that its fun to have a stylish wolf played by Johnny Depp. Whim in a fairytale is timeless, because it is the timeless fairy tales that have survived. Woven into a modern show, it just seems like guesswork.

Certainly, there is some collective charm to the whole thing, even when liquified in a musical blender. But, there are other problems. The lyrics include one forced rhyme after another. In a duet between the baker and his wife, revelings in their discovery that it takes two working together to have a child, you can hear Sondheim groping for a rhyme or two. The wife sings, “It takes care. It takes patience and fear and despair. To change. Though you swear to change, who can tell if you do? It takes two.” Huh?

Moreover, “Into The Woods” is a musical that lacks any catchy tunes. There are no songs you can’t get out of your head, finger-snapping melodies or glorious torch songs to carry the day. There’s nothing you’re going to sing in the shower or hum to yourself while driving to work.

Sondheim does use his score to move the plot along, which is convention of opera, not musicals. There are, however, some fun performances (Steep, Depp, Blunt and James Corden as the Baker) and some solid singing, albeit with a weak moment or two.

The special effects are worthwhile, and there are a few comedic moments to keep the thing alive. There is nothing truly grating here – but nothing truly off the charts great, either.

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