Happily Never After, by Tyler Smith
It seems somehow inconceivable that a film- a musical, no less- about witches, giants, and magic could be as generally flat as Rob Marshall’s latest film. Adapted from the successful Stephen Sondheim stage musical, Into The Woods attempts to combine several well-known fairy tales and use the unified story to explore the concept of “Happily Ever After.” A great idea, and one that, by all accounts, works great on the stage. But, somehow, as Disney translates it to the screen, sanding off all the edges along the way, the story becomes stagnant and uninspired.
Perhaps this adaptation was doomed from the start. With each trailer and poster, we are reminded over and over that Into The Woods is supposed to be the ultimate Disney film, which takes some of our beloved childhood characters and mixes them all together, to the delight of families everywhere. However, Sondheim never meant for this story to be a family affair. Instead, he is trading on the very grown-up idea that happy endings don’t simply happen and then continue; they require effort and responsibility to work.
The film certainly attempts to convey this, but in a way that kids might also understand. The result is a film that doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be. So, instead, it opts to be nothing. It is an exercise in art direction and costume design, as a bunch of capable actors are given workable characters, but are stranded without a specific tone. As such, we get a mishmash of songs and stories and characters that never seem to work with one another.
Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t moments or performances that are engaging. Meryl Streep, as always, commits to every aspect of her character of the Witch, from the wry humor to the vulnerable pain. Both Emily Blunt and James Corden are game enough to go wherever the story needs them to. And special attention should be paid to Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, who manages to capture just the right mix of precocious and obnoxious.
And, as one would expect, the design of the film is gorgeous. The cottages and castles- not to mention the woods themselves- truly feel like a fairy tale fully realized. And the costumes capture the essence of each character without being too ostentatious. It is frustrating, though, that Marshall and his cinematographer Dion Beebe shoot the proceedings in such an unmemorable way. The forest, with its gnarled trees and dark shadows, actually doesn’t seem that ominous or foreboding. In fact, it doesn’t even seem that deep. Compared to movies like Sleepy Hollow or the Lord of the Rings series- films in which the dead trees and roots seem about to envelope the characters at any moment- this film falls short. It creates a gorgeous world, but never really pulls us into it.
Marshall, who is nothing if not a talented director of spectacle, seems to be at a loss for how to make this material really pop. The vibrance and vitality that he brought to Chicago is almost completely absent, save for a sequence or two. Perhaps he felt a bit hamstrung by having to broaden the musical’s appeal and had no choice but to make the film as bland and inoffensive as possible.
This once again brings us to the question of Disney’s goals for the film. We’ve seen what Marshall can do when he is allowed a free hand to fully explore the darkness and humor of a play, as evidenced by the gleefully cynical tone of Chicago. In regards to Sondheim, Tim Burton’s adaptation of his Sweeney Todd– though hardly a masterpiece- at least managed to capture the gory humor of the original stage musical.
There are sequences in the film that could have had a much more sexual- or at least sensual- quality to them, such as those involving Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, as well as anything involving the dashing, womanizing Prince. In these moments, we get slight hints of a much more bawdy, titillating experience eager to burst out from this flat, forgettable film. Without question, there is a fantastic, engaging adult film to be made from Stephen Sondheim’s musical, but this is certainly not it.