I feel like we should applaud Walt Disney Studios for managing to effectively hide the fact that Into the Woods is a musical. You watch a trailer for it and you assume that it’s a slightly dark movie about a bunch of the fairy tale characters you know and love coming together in a single film. In reality, it’s a kind of comedy-musical where almost every scene has a song or part of a song, and the majority of the lines in the film are sung or talk-sung. Somehow, this has been essentially hidden from us by the marketing team, and that’s quite something.
If you didn’t know — and why would you? — Into the Woods is based on the Broadway show of the same name, which is an award-winning production. It does, indeed, have a bunch of fairy tale characters crossing over with one another, all of whom start off with the same goals that they normally do. Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off to Granny’s house. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to the prince’s castle. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is off to the market to sell the cow for beans. They all have to go into the forest in order to accomplish these goals.
Meanwhile, the local baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are struggling to have a child. They’re approached by their neighbor, a witch (Meryl Streep), who tells them they can’t conceive because of a curse placed upon them. The only way to lift this curse is to collect four items: A red cape, a white cow, yellow hair, and a golden slipper. So, they’re basically looking for the main thing from each of the other fairy tales. You can maybe see where this is going.
And if the film ended at “happily ever after,” as we expect, Into the Woods would be a good movie. At about the 90-minute mark, we reach a point where most of the stories have received enough closure that we could have ended the film and we would be glad. Unfortunately, the film then takes a turn, throws in real enemy, and it becomes long and tiresome. I was ready for it to end after about 90 minutes; the additional plot thread makes the film too long and distracts from the fun we had previously, which was watching all the various fairy tales intersecting with each other.
The film struggled to balance its ensemble cast at the best of times. Some characters wind up disappearing for long stretches, or being cut entirely. Johnny Depp has received high billing for what winds up being a two-scene, one-song cameo. Supporting members of each story often have a good chunk of time between scenes. Even “main” members like Little Red or Cinderella sometimes disappear for 20-30 minutes.
I’m not a music critic, and I don’t pretend to be, but I did like most of the songs in Into the Woods. Thankfully, this isn’t a musical where the plot often stops in order to hear the songs, and the songs themselves are catchy and sometimes funny or informative. I don’t remember any standouts, as many of them sound a lot alike, but there also weren’t any that were particularly bad. It turns out that most of the cast are good singers, too, so that’s a bonus.
Unfortunately, they’re not all great actors. It’s especially noticeable when it comes to the kids, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, although some of the adults suffer from this trap, too. They can all sing well, which is good, but some of them completely forget about acting while in song. The likes of Meryl Streep or Emily Blunt keep acting and turning in a good performance; some of the others forget. And when they’re not particularly good actors in the first place, the poor performances really show up.
Into the Woods is 90 minutes of a pretty fun movie, and then another 35 that really drags on and tarnishes what was done before. The premise gets tiresome after its “happy” ending, and by the time the plot makes a turn in a different direction, the film should have ended. The songs are catchy and mostly fun, so at least there’s that. The ensemble cast isn’t balanced well, and some of the actors can’t sing and act at the same time. It’s a mixed film, and unless you’re a big fan of musicals and fairy tales, it’s likely one you can skip.