Into the Woods review

Into the Wood‘s is the latest of Stephen Sondheim‘s musicals to reach the big screen, an adaptation of the 1987 show set in a set in a storybook world and intertwining multiple Brothers Grimm fairytales with a new central plot and characters.

Sondheim composed an additional, eventually unused, song for the film version, for Meryl Streep‘s witch character, and reportedly wrote ‘Don’t fuck it up’ on the sheet music before handing it over. This is exactly what many have been thinking about the whole adaptation for years, and especially during the last few, since director Rob Marshall started the process in earnest.

Marshall’s previous credits include mediocre pictures such as Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha and some outright stinkers like Nine and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Thankfully, he’s done a much better job with Into the Woods.

Sondheim and James Lapine‘s clever plot links together the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk with the original story of a baker and his wife. These new characters are are desperate to have a baby, but have been living under a curse by the neighbourhood witch and, as this tale unfolds, set out on a quest to get it lifted.

The film opens with the title song, a fourteen minute number that draws together almost all of the characters, and delivers a lot of necessary exposition. It’s performed with great gusto by the assembled cast, most of whom are principally screen actors.

The players have acquitted themselves rather well throughout all of the often tricky musical numbers. It does become clear during the rather more difficult songs, however, that those with more stage experience, such as the youngsters Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huddlestone, bring a little more range to their vocal delivery.

Of the movie star singing, I’d single out Anna Kendrick‘s fine job with the challenging number On the Steps of the Palace, and Streep’s impressive ability to navigate material that’s ridden with tongue twisters and verbal complexities.

But ultimately, and somewhat surprisingly, the standout musical number in the film is Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen‘s spirited rendition of Agony. During this scene, two princes romp flamboyantly atop a waterfall and compete over who is the most lovelorn, all through the medium of song and a little macho shirt-ripping. The sequence is incredibly funny, and Pine delivers his lines with tongue well-placed in cheek. He brought the house down with “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” at my screening.

Better still is Emily Blunt as the Baker’s wife, the film’s real star. She delivers solid vocals throughout, but also brings a great subtlety to her performance, adding even more wit and humour to Lapine’s already bristling script.

Starring alongside Blunt as the Baker, her husband, is James Corden. He’s perfectly adequate in the role, and I found this to be a definite improvement over his previous big screen outings. Perhaps he seems a little bland at times, though he does have to compete with Blunt’s stellar turn.

Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe‘s visuals doesn’t always reach these high standards, I’m afraid, though there have been attempts to make every scene as dynamic as possible. Unfortunately, their particular manner of dynamism has led to far too many moments where the camera is swooping or flailing aimlessly, or hiding behind foliage in search of an interesting foreground. It’s at least a noble attempt at keeping the visuals alive, when the bulk of many scenes could have been comprised of a few characters standing around in a clearing and blasting each other with song.

It can be tricky to edit a musical like this, and the decision to cut is often dictated by the beats and switches in the musical numbers. Those who particularly excel in musical cinema are those that understand how to work around this, including during the shoot, and while Marshall, Beebe and editor Wyatt Smith have clearly tried, their solutions aren’t always perfect.

At the same time, the production design and visual effects work occasionally leave a little to be desired, and some scenes feel a little unfinished or lacking in detail, despite the heightened fairytale aesthetic. The world of Into the Woods is supposed to be somewhat entangled if not hermetic, but it does, at times, feel too small, and it can be obvious that everybody is standing around on a small set, and this renders some sequences a little underwhelming.

I have no so complaints over Colleen Atwood‘s costuming, however, which is of the very same top-notch standard that we’ve come to expect from her work.

And ultimately, Into the Woods does develop a significant structural issue. The film follows the musical’s two act structure, and there seems to be a very clear divide between the acts, the first ending with the main characters all living happily ever after.

But because of this, the film grinds to a halt. It’s especially noticeable as things were so spritely up until this point, and it never really seems to get going again. While the second act is actually shorter than the first, it feels a lot longer and occasionally it’s a bit of a slog.

But there’s a lot of fun to be had, especially in the first act, and while not every aspect of the production is as polished or perfected as would have been ideal, there’s a lot to enjoy, some killer songs and a number of excellent performances.

Into the Woods is in UK cinemas from today and is already screening in the US.