The long-awaited Sondheim adaptation, despite its talented cast, is doomed from the start with uninspired direction and an ugly visual aesthetic.

Director Rob Marshall is a filmmaker of dubious quality.  His first outing behind a camera was the smash-hit film adaptation of the musical Chicago.  Armed with an ingenious way to bring modern movie audiences into the musical fold (the “song within the mind” gimmick), an A-List cast, some MTV style rapid-fire editing, a few flashy dance steps, and the might of the all-powerful Weinsteins, Marshall directed Chicago all the way to Best Picture Oscar victory.

His follow-up films have never been able to match the verve of his debut stunt – Memoirs of a Geisha was offensive Oscar bait trash dripping with pretension, while Nine couldn’t live up to its own stage source material or the revered film on which it was based, Fellini’s 8 ½.  His partnership with Disney on the 4th Pirates of the Caribbean film bore financial fruit, but was met with scathing reviews from critics.  Despite dismal critical reaction to most of his work, the profits have been large enough for him to keep skating by, tackling one prestige studio project after another.  Once again flying the Disney banner, Marshall’s latest sees him return to the comfort of the musical genre with the long-gestating film adaptation of the revered Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods.

Any American who has gone to high school or visited their local community theater is familiar with Into the Woods, a mainstay of the educational and regional theater circuits following its Broadway debut in 1987.  And there is nary a theater geek that can’t sing at least one of Sondheim’s infamous tongue-twisting lyrics from the show.  Due to its overwhelming popularity and the natural film-friendly setting of its fairytale world, it comes as quite a surprise that it has taken this long for the film to come to fruition, especially now with the obvious choice of Disney taking the reins.  What comes as even more of a surprise is how dull the whole thing turns out to be now that it has finally been made.

The basic plot points are intact, with the main focus still being a baker and his wife longing to break their family curse in order to have a child.  The characters are all here – the aforementioned Baker and his wife, the Witch, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, the princes etc., but there doesn’t seem to be much blood pumping in their veins.  They appear as the story book sketches that they are, instead of the human beings Composer Sondheim and Book writer James Lapine painstakingly realized with their original creation.  In fact, like so many amateur school productions, Director Rob Marshall and Disney co. only seem interested in the show’s cheery and zippy first act while reluctantly tacking on and effectively neutering the dark themes of the second.  Any adaptation to another medium necessitates changes, but the choices made here are boneheaded in their conception and shallow in their delivery — an even bigger surprise, considering original author Lapine wrote the screen adaptation himself.

Into the Woods shoots itself in the foot right from the outset with an opening shot of an overcast sky, that then transitions to a foot splashing into a reflective puddle.  This dreary look lasts the entire runtime.  It never brightens or pops, but instead is content to wallow in the misery of its dark blue-greens instead of going for an ounce of cheer.  Into the Woods may be heady, and it may get oh-so-very-serious, but above all it is still a fairy tale (a deconstructed one) and should be treated accordingly.  Not a single recognizable piece of Disney iconography is used, even considering the lexicon available to the filmmakers — they clearly wanted to do their own thing, which would be admirable if it all didn’t look so hideous.  Nothing works here on a visual level, from Dion Beebe’s drab cinematography (a real disappointment considering how gorgeous his previous work with Marshall has looked), to Dennis Gassner’s crude stage-like production design, and Colleen Atwood’s uninspired and downright pedestrian costume design (Johnny Depp’s child predator wolf really takes the cake here). Never has a fairytale felt so gloomy and looked so ugly.

Rob Marshall feels restricted and lost with most of his staging.  The film is extremely claustrophobic, mostly framed in medium shots with the same monotonous fifty square feet of woods used again and again in the background.  It is so restrictive and geographically maddening that it almost feels as if you are watching an inferior black-box stage production without any of the passion, soul, or imagination usually found in such productions.  Marshall also rarely takes the time to open the piece up into a larger film world, which would be among the principal reasons to want to transfer Into the Woods to the big screen to begin with.  The couple of times he does attempt to broaden his canvas the exercise proves laughable with the Little Red traveling down the gullet of the wolf (which closely resembles the opening of a Dr. Who episode) being the most perplexing.

No, we don’t get to see the kingdom of the giants in the sky — hell, we barely get to see Cinderella’s castle, save for a few repeated shots of her scurrying down the stairs away from her Prince Charming.  There are a few moments that Marshall lands with aplomb, chief among them being the duet between princes entitled “Agony,” which is set like the cover of a romance novel on a river with tiny waterfalls where the princes pose and strut freely to hilarious effect. Another moment of rare magic happens when Cinderella steps outside of her own mind for “On the Steps of the Palace” to ruminate on her current love-struck predicament. And then there are the moments that Marshall almost lands, but then infuriatingly gets in his own way — such as Meryl Streep’s show-stopping rendition of “Last Midnight,” which starts strong and is then destroyed by nauseating and unmotivated swirling camera movements.  By the time the lamely executed off-screen deaths start occurring, Marshall and his crew have lost any goodwill they may have earned in those earlier moments which showed, however vaguely, the film’s true potential.

It should be said that when Into the Woods does work it is largely due to the charm of its game cast, who commit splendidly despite the directorial obstacles in their way.  Emily Blunt and James Cordon have a natural chemistry, though their sense of urgency is sorely lacking in the film’s first 20 or so minutes.  Meryl Streep is clearly having the time of her life and her vocal chops have never been put to such dazzling use. Chris Pine is channeling William Shatner in the most shallow and best possible way as Prince Charming, and Anna Kendrick is adorable as his runaway bride. The casting is right on the money and the lush orchestrations lend a helping hand to cover up any perceived vocal shortcomings.  It’s a shame then that this Into the Woods lacks any real vision to hold it together.  What has arrived on the screen is a watered down version of the play that takes itself far too seriously without room for much fun.  There just isn’t any magic in these woods.  A truly heartbreaking disappointment.

Grade: C-

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