Into the Woods is not a musical: it’s an opera. I’d say the singing-to-speaking ratio is roughly 85%-15%. If singing isn’t your thing, consider this a warning. If singing is your thing, consider this a warning: you will spend the full two hours listening to the same version of one song over, over, and over again. Like that old favourite: “Badger, badger, badger, badger, MUSHROOM! MUSHROOM! Badger, badger…”
Red Riding Hood, the Baker and his Wife, Jack, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and a couple of Princes all find themselves in the woods for various reasons. Basically, the story works like a clock where the two hands – the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) – go round in circles searching for four objects to break their curse of infertility. Their quest brings them into contact with every other character, one at a time, like meeting every number on the clock in turn. Their encounters include Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and the Witch (Meryl Streep), as the Baker and Wife search for, find, lose, and search again for their elusive objects. You would think the story concludes at the stroke of midnight with a happy ending and a Disney-sized royal wedding, but it doesn’t. We go into overtime with more songs and a deepening level of darkness which makes each character question their roles and gradually unravel at the roots of their fairy tale seams.
There are a few reasons why this film doesn’t work. Number one: it’s too long. I know that Into the Woods is a beloved Broadway musical, but as a movie I wish a brave editor had played the Huntsmen and chopped it down a little. It’s true that this movie is thirty minutes shorter than Les Miserables, but because the audio sounds like the same song over and over again it feels so much longer. Number two reason it doesn’t quite work: it’s too claustrophobic. With a few random snippet-like exceptions, we never leave the bloody woods. A little change in scenery (or colour tone) keeps things fresh and the momentum going. Going round and round under trees and over rocks that I swear I recognized from two scenes back feels like I, too, am lost in the woods but without the hope of epiphany that the others are sure to find.
The characters I feel lost in the woods with are also crazy as soup. One reason this film works is because director Rob Marshall recognized that Cinderella, a girl who talks to birds and runs from Prince Charming, must be totally crackers. Another reason it works is because of the talented cast. Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, and of course Meryl Streep bring a bit of modernity into the fairy tale, and in doing so make the Princess, the Wife, and the Witch relatable. Cinderella slouches, the Wife knows better than her husband, and the Witch is in dire need of a book on parenting.
While the film may be a construction of fairy tales that collide in the cleverest way, I’m glad the stories relate more to the Grimm’s tales than the Disney versions. There’s just a hint of not-safe-for-children darkness that the Grimm Brothers were famous for and which brings a bit of grotesque humour to the troubled, woebegone woods. And speaking of woods, I would dare you, at your next musical-themed gathering, to play the Into the Woods drinking game and take a swig every time you hear “Woods”. I would dare you, but I’d hate to be responsible for your less than admirable attempt at tackling the morning after.
Because it’s so repetitive, because it drags on, because the characters are more insufferable than lovable I was prepared to give Into the Woods a pretty mediocre score. But halfway through the film the charming Princes saved the day with the most smashingly comedic, overdramatic, satirical duet I’ve ever seen. Their performance, and Chris Pine’s surprisingly, ridiculously good voice, bumped the final score up to 6/10. It’s honestly worth watching the movie just to see their duet.
Click for the trailer.