I'm ordinarily not fanatical about musicals by any means, but they can be deliriously fun on occasion. There was tons of hype and excitement about a movie version of the Broadway musical Into the Woods (2014) being made. I confess I knew next to nothing about Broadway production apart from the fact that it involves fairy tale characters. It sounded fun, but what I saw was nothing like I expected.
As the result of the curse of a once-beautiful witch (Meryl Streep), a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are childless. Three days before the rise of a blue moon, they venture into the forest to find the ingredients that will reverse the spell and restore the witch's beauty: a milk-white cow, hair as yellow as corn, a blood-red cape, and a slipper of gold. During their journey, they meet Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), each one on a quest to fulfill a wish. As they work to make their wishes come true, their actions release great danger upon the land.
When a stage production moves to the big screen, there ought to be some significant changes in set and location. For example Little Shop of Horrors; on stage, the whole story takes place inside Mushnik's Skid Row Florists shop. For the movie adaptation, director Frank Oz took every opportunity to get the characters out of the shop and show them in many different locations. This gave the movie a bigger and more open feel to it, and made the fictional setting seem more real. For Into the Woods the primary location was, believe it or not, the woods. While events took place at different locations within the woods, many sets felt very much the same; there wasn't much variety in the background other than trees. Furthermore, most scenes didn't feature much happening other than characters singing dialogue to one another while standing around by the trees with the camera capturing close shots of the characters. This gave everything a claustrophobic look. We're shown a few wide aerial shots of the woods to suggest that its extensive, but when we're down in the woods we're given almost no sense of space or direction. And since the characters move and do so little other than sing dialogue, it almost feels like this could have been on a rather small stage. The whole point of making a movie adaptation is to make everything bigger, grander, and to do things that can't be done on a stage. Apparently no one told that to the director of Into the Woods, and it gave the whole production an uncomfortably amateur quality to it in terms of camera work, and set design. The sets looked good but seems so small that it was practically begging us to notice it was a soundstage.
Because the characters spend most of their time standing around in the forest singing dialogue about how terrible things are for them and what they wish would happen, the story doesn't lend itself to a whole lot of action. I don't mean in terms of chase scenes, explosions, and fights; I mean in terms of things actually happening. It is frequently suggested that events do take place but most of them occur off screen. This is occasionally a good thing, but is usually just confusing and robs the audience of interesting cinematography. For example, none of Jack's adventures up the beanstalk are ever shown; we just see him wander onto the set with an item of loot and hear him talk about what he did. This sort of thing happens a lot, and weakens a very visual storytelling medium by NOT showing us major events. Not showing us things that happen makes for a very slow moving and uninteresting movie. At one point some of the story arches were wrapping up and I hoped we were coming to the end of the movie, but then something happened to push the story further and I realized to my horror that there was a second act.
There were a number of times that something important happened but it wasn't shown happening. Towards the end there's a major character that dies; all we see is this character in a close up looking around and then stepping backwards to move off screen. I felt like something important had happened, but I was given no context to know what. It's not until halfway through the next scene that someone said they found this character, dead. There were so many times I was watching the movie and thought, "What just happened?", because we aren't shown enough of what little action there is to know what is happening in the story. In fact, there's another scene where another character makes a dramatic exit, and as soon as the scene was over a little girl in the back of the theater loudly asked "What just happened?" If small children who usually aren't concerned with things like movie logistics are left confused, then the movie is doing something very wrong.
The few times the lack of action was a good thing was in instances where story elements of the original Grimm's fariy tale were mercifully done off screen, such as Cinderella's Stepmother cutting off the toes of her daughters to try to get Cinderella's lost slipper onto her daughter's feet. It's moments like that which are dark and violent that are obscured enough to keep it's PG rating, but it still obfuscates any potential to actually show the audience something happening other than dialogue.
At least the music makes up for the poor camera work and lack of action, right? Wrong. I'm not sure how this musical has earned such notoriety. None of the music was catchy, exciting, or moving. The lyrics weren't profound, interesting, or inspiring. In the case of Les Misérables many songs were upbeat enough to enjoy, and lyrics so meaningful that they moved audiences to tears. That memorable and intense quality was completely lacking in the music of Into the Woods. None of the tunes have stuck with me. The only lyrics that stick out in my mind were when all of the characters were repeating the same line over and over and over. The opening song had the cast singing the words "into the woods" repeatedly for an obnoxiously long time. I understood very early on where they were intending to go and it would have been nice if they'd just get there and do something already. Much of the music was almost like listening to insufferable bored children trying to amuse themselves on a long car ride.
One of the few things I liked about the movie was how intricately the characters' stories were interwoven. We're all familiar with most of these character's stories already. The way that these stories influence one another and how some characters weave in and out of stories they don't originally belong to was highly impressive and interesting. The structure of the story was well done, even if the story itself was slow moving. It still would have been better if we got to see more of the story rather than just hear the characters talking about the story.
I honestly didn't know what to expect going in to see Into the Woods, but this wasn't it. The camera work was bad, the music was drab and forgettable, and the pacing was very slow. The intricacy of the story is impressive, but the story mostly features the characters standing around in the forest talking about things the movie should have been showing us. I can see how this would be a good production if it were on stage, but the transition to movie was not done well at all. The writing, camera work, and set design should have had a lot more attention for it to be a solid movie. It has cute moments here and there, but the bad aspects of the movie really do ruin the few good bits. I can't recommend seeing this. Fans of the musical might enjoy seeing the play with CGI special effects and such, but I imagine the awkwardness of the overall movie production would make it disappointing. If you had no prior experience with the musical, you'll probably get a good laugh at how bad and awkward this movie is. This isn't even worth renting. Go watch Hairspray or something else if you're in a mood for a musical.