Review: Fairy-tale mash-up ‘Into The Woods’ feels stagebound and small as a movie

It is not the fault of anyone involved with “Into The Woods” that in the time since the musical originally opened on stage, it has been rendered redundant. When it opened on Broadway in 1987, one of the things that made it stand out was just how much of a post-modern spin it put on the entire notion of happily ever after. In the decades since then, pop culture has turned into one giant “don't take any of this too seriously” wink, and fairy tales have been deconstructed so completely that it feels like this has been completely digested already.

Besides, part of me is almost convinced that Sondheim just doesn't work on film.

We're talking about a show that won the Tony for Best Score, Best Book and Best Actress, beating the 900-pound gorilla of the year, “The Phantom Of The Opera.” Impressive, and it cleaned up at the Drama Desk Awards as well, where it actually took Outstanding Musical. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine are long-time collaborators who seem to innately understand one another, and they both understand theater on an almost molecular level. When you see one of their productions, they are in total control.

So when I say that there's something wrong from frame one with “Into The Woods,” it's not the source material or the show itself. My problem is with Rob Marshall, who I have like less with each new film he releases. While he is nowhere near as aggressively wrong for the material as Will Gluck was for “Annie,” I am amazed how many times he's fumbled the execution of fairly airtight material. He has never demonstrated even the slightest knack for staging, one of the essential skills if you're going to make some of this material work.

There are several big numbers in the film that should bring the house down, and examining the way Marshall stages each of them is fairly revealing about him as a filmmaker. FIrst, there's the terrifically difficult “Hello, Little Girl,” in which The Wolf (Johnny Depp) sings to and about Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). The song's just plain creepy, but onstage, the Red Riding Hood role was typically filled by an adult actress playing younger. Here, Crawford is a pre-teen who seems to be channelling Ethel Merman, so the lyrics to the song seem more “To Catch A Predator” than ever before. Audiences will cringe as Depp minces about in his ill-inspired Tex Avery tribute Wolf costume, singing “Look at that flesh, pink and plump. Hello, little girl, tender and fresh, not one lump. Hello, little girl, this one's especially lush. Hello, little girl, what's your rush?” It is clear he's talking about eating her, but “think of that scrumptious carnality” isn't exactly double entendre, either. Marshall lets Depp have plenty of room to roam around during the number, but there's nothing about the way it's staged that pushes it to either be funny or sinister or sensual or scary. Marshall never seems to be able to really sculpt a moment in a way that works all as of a piece, and he strands Depp here. Depp is swallowed by the costume and he just doesn't have the vocal power to sell it as a performance within the singing. This is Depp's second go-round with Sondheim, and it's almost masochistic considering how hard it is for even the best-trained singers to nail a Sondheim number.

The other two numbers worth considering are, I think, the highlights of the film, and in both cases, I feel like Marshall was lucky that his cast stepped up, because they deliver what he can't. First, there's Anna Kendrick's “On The Steps Of The Palace.” When I was enjoying Kendrick in movies like “Up In The Air” or “Rocket Science” or “Scott Pilgrim,” I didn't realize she had gotten her start in live Broadway theater. The last few years, though, have utterly changed the direction of her film career, and she has emerged as a real powerhouse when it comes to musical performance. Her big scene is one of the most demanding songs in the film, and she makes it look effortless. And thanks to the almost foolproof way the scene is designed, it ends up working better visually simply by virtue of the fact that we can see all of Kendrick, head to toe, one of the fundamentals of shooting a musical. It's at the moment that Cinderella is trying to escape the Prince's palace for the third time, and this time, he's got the stairs rigged to catch her and hold her in place. As she stands frozen, contemplating what's about to happen, she steps outside of herself for this song, and Kendrick positively crushes it. She gets Sondheim in a way that Depp doesn't, and she wrings every bit of juice out of the song as a result. But again… the song itself almost demands this staging. This isn't a case of Marshall making a strong choice so much as it is him simply staying out of the song's way.

The other number that comes close to greatness is “Agony,” a two-person song in which Cinderella's Prince (Chris Pine) and Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen) sing odes to the pain of love. What works is the way both Pine and Magnussen deflate their own looks with the arch ridiculous performances they give, and it further confirms my suspicions that Pine is a stealth freak. He looks like a leading man, but there's a much stranger heart beating in that chest of his. When I talk about all the ways other films and plays have taken cues from “Into The Woods” and pushed further, think of the “Gaston” number from “Beauty and the Beast,” which takes this kind of attitude one step further. In 1987, this was a real subversion of fairy tale princes as an archetype, and now it's a very gentle joke at best. Nothing Marshall does with the song emphasizes the performances in any particular way, though, and the laughs come from the actors, not the way the piece is shot.

Where Marshall really loses me is in the way he manages to make this film version feel more claustrophobic than any of the stage productions I've seen. They seem to have built one thirty foot square section of forest to shoot the entire film, and on the few occasions there are effects used, they are almost wholly unconvincing. There's a giant who feels like they had never seen a movie involving a giant before, and had no idea how to try to create the effect. It baffles me how Dion Beebe could shoot a movie that looks as good as “Edge Of Tomorrow” and a movie that looks as resolutely fake as “Into The Woods” in the same year. If this is the look that Marshall wanted, then we have radically different aesthetic standards, and if this isn't intentional, then it's just accidentally ugly, and I'm not sure which is worse. The cast seems largely game for what they're doing, and both James Corden and Emily Blunt work hard as the Baker and the Baker's Wife, the emotional core of the film. Meryl Streep is fine as The Witch, and more successful here in her big songs than she was in “Mamma Mia.”

It's really only because of the cast and the material itself that anything about “Into The Woods” works. At this point, I don't have any faith in Rob Marshall, and “Chicago” is looking more and more like the result of other strong voices in the mix and less like Marshall is the modern master of the musical that he's been hyped as. Whether it's past its pop-culture expiration date or not, “Into The Woods” deserved a more visually inventive director to help make it work, and instead, we get something that feels somehow reduced by its translation to the screen.

“Into The Woods” is now playing in theaters everywhere.