Rob Marshall may not have the most diverse of career, but each one does carry a significant palette that absorbs his audience in; take for example Chicago with its dazzling lights and expressionistic set design. Musicals have been Marshall’s comfort zone, right from his first feature, a TV movie and a cult favourite, Annie back in 1999. To see him once again in the format may seem uninspired, but I always remain hopeful as he is one of the rare few who energise the heart of its genre, showcasing a contemporary update of the dying format.
Chicago may not be a perfect feature but it was without a doubt, inspiring; seeing the glamour and theatricality of a Bob Fosse production, whilst keeping a spin of his own that retains the fact that it is his production. I knew very little of the actual material that Into the Woods was based on, overhearing that it was a play that puts on a twist, with a splash of darkness on classic fairy tales; essentially I came into this blind, unknowing on where it would take me and how it would handle its familiar elements. I came out of this with a surprise, a conversion of seemingly separate stories; Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack & The Beanstalk, all inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales; and initially provide a plot that seems plausible and gripping. I was keen to see how all of it would play out and still remain faithful to the outcomes of its original stories, and for the first half I remained impressed.
Its premise is simple in construction and immediately clarified with its titular number that goes through for at least 12-13 minutes, a method that would have you believing that we are witnessing another Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012), but traditional dialogue enters and provides a pleasing break from its sensational tunes. It follows a baker and his wife, who soon learns that a curse has been placed in their home even before they were born due to the sin committed by the baker’s father against his neighbour, a witch who swore to protect the magical beans that grow within her garden, which through his thievery turns her into a mortifying figure. In an attempt to claim back her lost beauty and a promise to lift their curse, she sends the baker and his wife to a task that claims four items; a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.
In its first half, I was finding myself in deep pleasure of its playfulness, even amongst the dark canvas that Marshall paints his background to be; there was a bounce in its character’s step that reminds me of some of the experiences of cinema’s most gratifying musicals. There was a sense of urgency in in its plotting, and a comedic fluff in its atmosphere; I found myself uncaring of the boundaries that the film could push in order to achieve boldness from its peers, and absorbed in its world and characters.
The film’s downfall, unfortunately, is found in its second half where it begins to lose any sort of urgency or direction for its characters, they wander and interact that takes its time in pushing them along the appropriate path; it constantly lingers with music that lacks the punch that the first half carries and comes to a conclusion that is appropriate but lacks the emotional resonance that would make up the turbulent experience. This aspect of the film attempts to flesh out more of the darker elements of its plots, and hopes to solidify and reward the development of its characters; but the whole experience felt restricted, Marshall attempting to tread into darkness but unwilling to bask in it and expose its themes and the characters that carry them for who or what they truly are, cushioned by its sentimentality; if the film was going to plod along harsh waters, then it should have the confidence to whole-heartedly swim in it.
Casting has always been a highlighted aspect of Marshall’s production, a filmmaker who can draw in talent regardless of the reception that his previous films received, and Into the Woods fulfils his diversity and ambition even further with a strong cast that include the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp; and although they are the film’s most experienced of performers, they are not as apparent as they should be, placing its focus instead on figures like James Corden (Baker), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Emily Blunt (Baker’s Wife), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood). Much of the cast find themselves in unrewarding supportive roles, lacking the development that they need to become fully realised characters that earns our investment. Even by its second half where it exposes more of its troubling characters, these supporting figures weren’t given the appropriate time that fully justifies their existence. Also it was quite bothersome to find that Meryl Streep was nominated for her performance in this, a wasted slot that could have been filled by a stronger performance.
Into the Woods carries the polish that one would find in a Rob Marshall film, constantly leaving one impressed from a technical and visual standpoint, but as a narrative, it lacks the cohesion and direction in its latter half that would make this a remarkable entry into the genre. It dabbles on daring elements but never stays loyal to them, leaving audiences with a compromise that barely rewards.