In the immortal words of doctor Samuel Beckett, ” Oh boy”.
Going into this film I had no point of reference. Having never seen the stage show or even hearing any of the songs before seeing the film. Usually I’m a fan of musicals, so long as there are some good catchy songs and it’s not too ridiculous I would be on board ninety percent of the time. Well Into the Woods is part of that ten percent. The film isn’t without its enjoyable moments but overall it’s a mess. You can hear Stephen Sondheim’s musical style here, one song in particular made me think of Sweeney Todd, but none of the songs are particularly memorable. The style of singing in this film is much less pop/ top 40 and more singing exposition repeatedly.
The Direction feels all over the place. The first big musical number,the titular Into the Woods Prologue, sets up all of our characters in their respective stories but the way in which it ping pongs back and forth both in the editing and the singing became grating. The cast has fine singing voices, not great, not bad, just fine. Fine is good for a solo here or there but putting several singers together in a number without a real standout great feels more like a karaoke night rather than a major musical motion picture. The film also suffers from the same problems many people had with Les Miserables, when the camera isn’t constantly moving (because hey! every shot should be done hand-held nowadays right?) it’s in extreme close-ups of the cast. I began to think Into the Woods was a reference to the nose hair they were trying to show. These closeups were especially frustrating when there was dancing or other choreography going on but we can’t appreciate it because for one example we can only see Meryl Streep’s head and shoulders on-screen during her big number.
Speaking of Meryl Streep, she has gotten a lot of buzz going into this film. Well about the same level of buzz she always gets, but here its undeserved. She is fine as a not so much evil but pragmatic witch, that’s all though, fine. There are some scenes where shes very good and fun to watch and some that are so over the top and hammy you get pulled right out of the movie.
Another element that will pull you out is the narration. James Corden, future host of The Late Late Show, plays the baker and narrates throughout the story. While i’m sure in the stage play this would feel more natural, something about his delivery made me feel like I was watching a made for TV movie, or something you would see on Netflix. A recent film I saw on Netflix, Odd Thomas starring Anton Yelchin, had a similarly odd self-aware narration by the protagonist. It didn’t work there either.
The strengths of the film lie in its comedy and there are moments where its damn funny. Standout moments include Johnny Depp’s funny and uncomfortably creepy turn as the big bad wolf, though his screen time was incredibly short considering the ad campaign built up around him. As well as what has to be hands down, bar none, the best part of the entire film (as well as the funniest) the musical number “Agony” performed by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. Without spoiling it I would have to say that this scene is almost worth the admission alone. There are other laughs to be had sprinkled throughout. Red Riding Hood goes back and forth from humorous to annoying, and Jack’s mom (played by the always dependable Tracy Ullman) has a few good laughs but doesnt get nearly enough to do considering her talent.
Overall there’s just enough to like here that some people are sure to come out having a good time. While at the same there’s enough to pick apart that a number of people will fall anywhere from “meh” to the hate column. Either way nothing sticks out as particularly memorable or iconic to make this a classic musical for years to come. A small diversion if youre bored this holiday but Into the Woods will fade from your mind as quickly as it arrived.