Adapting Stephen Sondheim to the big screen has a varying scale of quality over the years. While West Side Story is clearly one of his best musicals to work as a movie, while Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street leaves a lot to the imagination, in terms of quality. Personally, I think his best work in movies comes from Warren Beatty's 1990 film Dick Tracy, where Sondheim wrote five songs for the comic strip adaptation. This Christmas, audiences will be treated to the latest big screen adaptation with Into The Woods with a release from the Walt Disney Company. Although the musical plays heavily on fairy tales and musical theater, it seems that Rob Marshall, surprisingly, limits the material's full potential with a somewhat bland version of the Stephen Sondheim musical.
Into The Woods is a multiple tiered story with traditional fairy tale characters playing out their stories. We have Jack selling his prized cow for magic beans, while Little Red Riding Hood travels to her grandmothers house to deliver her a few sweets. Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick, experiences the Prince's magical ball, while Rapunzel is trapped in a tower with only her long golden hair to serve as her escape. We have the baker, played by James Corden, and his wife, played by Emily Blunt, and at the center of all of the tales is the Witch, played by Meryl Streep. It seems that the big problem with Into The Woods is that its exciting and thrilling climax comes at the very beginning of the film, but never really sustains such great heights throughout the entire movie.
While director Rob Marshall razzle dazzled audiences with the Academy Award winning Chicago a decade ago, it seems that he confines Into The Woods into Chicago's stagey limitations. While it worked for Chicago, it doesn't work in Into The Woods. The musical never feels as high as its opening number because Marshall can't quite balance multiple storylines into one cohesive movie. There's never a balance between Robert Altman-esque storytelling with Baz Luhrmann sense for high melodrama and spectacle. Simply put, Into The Woods falls flat after its amazing opening number and breaks one of the cardinal rules of storytelling, it quickly wears out its welcome.
There's a point about midway through the movie where it feels like a natural conclusion, or at least plays on our conditioning of modern storytelling, but Into The Woods just keeps going while the audiences is waiting for the final credits to start rolling. You can actually feel the air go out of the theater at this point and the movie never recovers. You can also feel your audience build with anxiety waiting for Into The Woods to end. The last half of the musical is very uneasy because of its structure. Now I understand why the movie is structured this way - to subvert expectations of traditional fairy tales - but it seems more natural on the stage, rather than on the big screen.
While there are big standouts with Corden, Kendrick, Streep, and Chris Pine, as Prince Charming, Into The Woods serves as a good family option during the holiday season, but it falls flat as a lukewarm musical.