Rob Marshall was probably the wrong guy to usher Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s extraordinary musical “Into the Woods” to the screen. A former Broadway director and choreographer himself, his films have always been slick, soulless and overproduced.
Then again the Walt Disney Co. was probably the wrong studio to make a screen version too since its corporate minders have virtually Disneyfied the Broadway musical.
So there’s a kind of redundancy to Disney making any Broadway musical into a film, even one first staged 27 years ago, long before Disney began turning its classic cartoons into Broadway smashes.
“Into the Woods” has a subversive nature that is not exactly simpatico with the Disney version. Yes, it’s a fairy tale; many classic bedtime fairly tales in fact all craftily rolled into one. Yet it also debunks the whole nature of the fairly tale. Sample these lyrics:
“Careful the wishes you make, Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take — Wishes come true, not free…”
I’m not saying Marshal & Co. are unaware of this. How could they not be? I’m saying it gets rolled up into a Disney view nonetheless. The movie gives comfort when it should give pause. It cuts the show’s infidelities and lasciviousness in favor of coyness.
The movie version is at its best when mocking its two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) in a delicious Sondheim number, “Agony,” where the lads commiserate about the torment caused by those damned damsels in distress.
The film also makes fine use of the musical talents of Meryl Streep, still largely unexploited by films other than “Mamma Mia!” Somehow though, even here, Marshall finds a way to hamstring her in the Witch role with uninspired stagings and too much special effects.
So the movie catches the ghost of “Into the Woods’” achievement, faithfully reproducing songs and movements and lording it over its theatrical sibling with towering forests, quaint hamlets and a fabulous castle no stage show can present.
But it doesn’t quite catch the subtext of the urban neurotics who populate the Woods with their whiny blaming and conniving. Instead you get PG-rated whimsy.
For the first two-thirds of the show a tuneful and clever pastiche of Brothers Grimm fairy tales intertwine like a complex Alan Aykbourne comedy: Thanks to a long-ago curse by the Witch, the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blount) learn they’ve been left childless.
But the Witch makes them a bargain: If by the rise of a blue moon three midnights hence they bring her four items, the Baker’s household will be blessed with progeny.
The odd items — a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a slipper as pure as gold — take them Into the Woods where they are destined to meet the minders/keepers/sellers of said objects.
These are dimwitted Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) sent to market by his nagging mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his cherished white cow but settling instead for a handful of “magical” beans; a depressed maiden Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) with those long blonde tresses; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) with — do you really need to be told? — and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) fleeing the Palace in a pair of such slippers.
There’s a big bad Wolf (Johnny Depp in a performance you might miss with a restroom break) to be foiled and, of course, an evil Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch) to be roiled.
So the woods are alive with the sound of Sondheim music and Lapine’s satiric frivolity until a big switcheroo at what feels like the end but is indeed only the mid-second act climax. Just as the Narrator is about to declare that impossible pronouncement about everyone living happily ever after — disaster.
A Lady Giant, the product of Jack’s beanstocking adventures, appears to wreck havoc on the Kingdom. These sequences, starring Tony-winner Frances De La Tour, are its own disaster, an imposition of an out-of-scale personality against an already phony set design that seems like a relic from ‘40s-era special effects gone awry.
This does, however, bring about a rethink of fairytaleland, happy-ever-aftering and the homilies and bromides that never quite work out in real life. While not exactly Real Life, the frantic consequences of everyone’s “wishes” and corrupt procuring of objects and wanton witches’ curses come home to roost.
Having shot his wad, so to speak, with all the wonderments of the first two acts, Marshall brings nothing to the pivotal sequences that embrace the show’s whole point. It’s simply more of the same.
Plus those Disney-manditated alterations — excising the sexual connection between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood and a prince sleeping with the Baker’s Wife — take their toll.
One still reacts to lines such as the philandering prince declaring “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” a line that sums up so much about fairy-tale characters and their real-life counterparts.
But the magical-scary propositions proposed by Sondheim and Lapine (who did pen the screenplay) are absent. Everything has been Disneyfied. Well, what did you expect?
Opens: December 25, 2014 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Lucamar Productions, Marc Platt Productions
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Billy Magnussen, MacKenzie Mauzy, Simon Russell Beale, Frances de la Tour
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: James Lapine, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Lapine
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Producers: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt, Callum McDougall
Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Visual effects supervisor: Matt Johnson
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Wyatt Smith
PG rating, 125 minutes