Rob Marshall has had plenty of success in the world of musical motion picture. His 2002 film adaptation of Chicago won Academy Awards and boosted Marshall’s name into the Hollywood “it crowd” in the process. Following up Chicago with a lovely adaptation of the Arthur Golden novel, Memoirs of a Geisha, showed Marshall was an accomplished director who was capable of more than musicals. Those two films showed style, heart and confidence. Since then, Marshall has directed Nine, a less well-received musical in 2009, On Stranger Tides, the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, in 2011, a film that many thought was unnecessary and failed in comparison to its prior instalments, and now, in 2014, Into the Woods, a Disney produced adaptation of the stage-musical of the same name that debuted in the late 80’s. Along with Marshall, Stephen Soderheim created the music, and the writing of the screenplay was done by James Lapine who also co-wrote the musical with Soderheim.
Now, I can’t say I’m a fan of Mashall, but I’m also not against him either. He’s just not a director that is ever on my radar as a film fan, per se. Here, though, my intrigue was sparked by the cast that he had assembled for a musical based on the fairy tales of The Brothers Grimm. With top acting talent like Meryl Streep (Sophies Choice), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau), Chris Pine (Star Trek), and comedy performers like Tracey Ullman (Small Time Crooks) and James Corden (Begin Again), it was enough to cause me to be curious about what it might be like. I am a fan of Kendrick and Blunt, and no one can question Streep’s resume.
The story mixes together various fairy tales, from Red Riding Hood, to Jack and the Beanstalk, to Cinderella, to Rapunzel, with a central story that these popular and well-known tales weave around. The central story itself follows a witch (Streep) who has put a curse on the house of a baker (Corden) whose father had stolen from her garden years before, and in doing so turned her to the bedraggled old witch that she is. The curse is that no one in the baker’s family will ever be able to bear a child. Hearing this, the baker and his wife (Blunt) plead with the witch, who tells them that the curse can only be broken if they retrieve, for her, a cape as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn and a shoe as pure as gold. With intentions to break the course in order to have a child, the baker sets off into the woods, and it is there that the film takes place for much of the time as we meet the various characters and hear their tales.
Now, it’s simplistic and cute and easy to watch, that’s easy to say. On the big screen, it looked nice and some of the songs were funny and catchy and, well, fine. Still, the foot on the pedal never takes the film to high speed. It never really moved past “okay” at any point. The cast don’t do a bad job, with my favourites being Kendrick and Blunt, who throw themselves in like everyone else, but there is too much ordinary and uninspired work going on here. Streep, as decent as she is as the witch, just feels like Streep, hamming it up and vying for another golden statue on her mantle. Corden, likeable as the portly baker, carries the film to a decent degree, but just doesn’t do anything special. He sort of, like the movie itself, and the songs which inhabit it, plods along. I also felt myself cringe when Johnny Depp appeared as the Big Bad Wolf. It was one of those moments that felt too familiar, too obvious and too blatant. It was another Burton-esque “quirky” bit-role from Depp, who sang like David Bowie a bit and sauntered around like a cross between Sweeney Todd and Jack Sparrow. Sweeney Sparrow: The Demon Wolf of the Woods. Suffice to say, I’m hoping that Johnny puts his toys and disguises back in his wooden chest and starts acting again, moving on from these makeup-heavy Halloween outfit roles.
I don’t want to seem completely down on the film, because I’m not. It was cute, I enjoyed some of the songs (the best of which is a prince-showdown between Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) and Cinderella’s Prince (Pine)) and I thought it looked really good. The vocals are also decent. I didn’t know what to expect from the singing ability of the people involved, but they all do a commendable job and hold their own. Still, I can’t ignore the holes in the plot, the mishandled way it unfolds, or the strange decisions relating to some of the characters. I also found, quite often in fact, that the lyrics to the songs, which act as dialogue throughout the film, were difficult to hear, be if from audio effects, background noise, musical arrangements or from the slurred words themselves. This made it difficult to enjoy certain songs, and thus, the film. With so many negatives listed here, I still wouldn’t call this a bad film. It has its charm and will undoubtedly satisfy plenty of movie-goers, and surely that can only be a good thing. For me, I expected and wanted more than I received, and even the actors I liked didn’t really do much for me here. See it and make up your own mind. For me, though, it was just “okay”.