How badly do we need just a good ole fashioned musical? Frozen is good, but forgets about being just traditional (in terms of musicals) and strays from the path. Les Miserables brought the set work and singing, but seemed too bloated at times. Can Disney rally? It seems like Into the Woods has all the intangibles to bring back traditional musicals, and it works most of the time, but still is missing that final piece.
Twisting the fairy tales that we all know so well, Into the Woods brings to life Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Beanstalk as part of a connected universe. The story starts when a witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.
Using the woods that is in the middle of all these fairy tales as the central location, each character is forced into the area in order to achieve a goal while along the way they all have an item that the couple is looking for: Jack’s cow, Cinderella’ shoe, Rapunzel’s hair, and Red Riding Hood’s cape. The journey takes the couple deep into the woods as the first act has the stories playing out much like we know them before the final two acts bring a twist to them and force them to intersect.
The songs are fun and the lively direction by Rob Marshall works most of the time, even though it often feels claustrophobic and sometimes weirdly focused on one person instead of having a large number that invites more people than just the main player to sing and dance. Instead, it almost goes for a more natural approach with the actors working within the world around them as they present their songs and using them to transition into the next big moment. Outside of the first song, it never seems like there is a giant number that brings everyone together for a grand moment.
Even without it though, Into the Woods presents a very Broadway-like atmosphere to the film as the singing numbers come and go and there are breaks were the actors just act rather than have to perform a number on top of everything. It is a nice change of pace from Les Miserables, which feels like a long strand of singing without any deposition being addressed unless you are a die hard fan who knows the plot or songs. Into the Woods invites everyone in and allows a moment for all different types of fans.
Streep shines in one of the main roles while Emily Blunt and James Corden steal the show multiple times. Both actors are able to bring an almost meta-humor the roles and plays with our understanding of musicals and these fairytales and almost mocks the moments that are happening. In one instance, when the Prince (Chris Pine) who is married to Cinderella meets Blunt in the woods, he decides to kiss her and rush off. This leaves her in disarray and almost asking the audience, “what just happened?’
Overall, the film has a sweet spirit and while the songs are good, there seems to be something lacking from the final product. While it does dive into the twisted relationships that fairytales create for its characters, it also at times strays from digging deeper into these problems and plays them off in more melodramatic moments than addressing the absurdity of these characters. It seems more interesting in making a quick point and moving past it than actually enforcing the point.
But Into the Woods still has a Broadway feel and for theater fans it has to be a treat. The actors are all on a high level and Marshall is a pro at directing musicals so it never feels like it detracts from the movie. Disney clearly wants to make a statement about breaking the mold that they set with their princess and fairytale characters, but also seems afraid to stray too far from the path and dive deeper into the woods that is killing that old model.