Jack (a decidedly too-young Daniel Huttlestone) leans wistfully against a massive branch of a large tree. “You think of all of the things you’ve seen,” he sings in “Giants in the Sky,” “and you wish that you could live in between.” You’re in luck, Jack, because you’ve found yourself in Rob Marshall’s safe and lobotomized Into the Woods (2014), the adaptation of the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, which manages to live very much in between its medium and the medium from which its source material comes, taking advantage of neither.
Here we have a movie that is neither cinematic nor theatrical but a sort of mutant third entity: a feature-length sound byte in which our interest is maintained because there are celebrities singing. That the songs don’t mean anything because their literal handling robs them of their essential purpose should be a comfort to young Jack who, instead of singing a song about the bittersweet sexual awakening of leaving childhood behind and entering the late teens and early adulthood, gets to, as a 13-year-old, sing a song about actually living in the atmosphere between the earth and the sky, I guess.
It’s hard to imagine what someone unfamiliar with the stage show would make of the movie. Would it make sense at all? Would it seem like a pleasant, if altogether forgettable experience? At its best, that’s what Into the Woods is (actually, at its absolute best, Into the Woods is a catalyst to watching the wonderful American Playhouse recorded performance), and it can be quite pleasant. But if a man goes to the movies, and the critic’s job is to be honest enough to admit he is that man, than this critic must be honest enough to admit that the man who went to the movies loves the stage musical. Does that make me more inclined to dismiss the movie? I’d like to think not, but I am dismissing it so who can say? Watching the movie approximates the feeling of a harried parent putting together a complicated toy and making something that is a close approximation of the image on the toy box only to turn around and find there are a number of pieces on the ground, damningly absent from the final product.
One of the pieces in Into the Woods’ case is assuredly subtext, but there is also a lot of warmth missing, strange for a Disney production, but the sentiment here feels forced, or undefined. The movie gives the impression that it retained the score from the stage, but a close examination finds, if not whole songs or characters missing (though there are some), parts of songs or aspects of characters done away with.
Fans of the show will appreciate that when a song is cut, its theme can be heard on the score, but fans will also recognize that for what it is, a bone thrown to a dog from his master. Perhaps, being slavishly devoted to Sondheim’s musical and its poignant and keen observations about moral choices, the pain of maturation, and the thankless sacrifice of parenthood, we expect too much from any movie adaptation (and Sondheim was closely consulted) and, after gaining so much satisfaction and joy from the musical, we should be happy with the bones we are thrown. I can’t bring myself to think that way; obviously my disappointment in the film cannot take away the fulfillment I’ve had from its source, but the master doesn’t get the benefit of that fulfillment if he loses that thing that made it fulfilling on the way from the theater to the movie house. To quote a line that doesn’t make the final cut, a servant is not just a dog to a prince.
After recognizing the story left on-screen is a poor representation of the story that it came from, does it matter much who the storytellers are? Just the same, there’s an affable James Corden as the childless Baker; Emily Blunt, the standout, as his eager and manically unsatisfied wife; a tenuous Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, whose defining characteristic is indecision, a characteristic Kendrick took so thoroughly to heart that she barely registers; Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as princes who put the vain and glorious in vainglorious; and a frenzied Meryl Streep as the insecure and zealous witch, made up to be blue-haired and snaggle-toothed, the better to chew the scenery, which Streep most certainly does.
As amusements when they could be highlights are Huttlestone’s Jack and Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood. Their storylines in the original musical represent the growing pains of late adolescence, finding yourself through sexual love, which mirrors the lessons learned by the witch and Jack’s mother, played here by Tracey Ullman, who are dealing with things on the other side—recognizing that the children they have raised are now adults and no longer require parents. In the movie, the casting of Jack and Little Red Riding Hood as pre-teens denies the movie the ability of making this point and instead does little with their characters. Little Red Riding Hood’s episode with the Wolf (a painfully awkward Johnny Depp) borders on the surreal because their relationship is based on deflowering and sex (the words “scrumptious carnality” can hardly be applied to food) and now must be, I don’t know, something else. It’s hard to buy the little girl’s line of “Granny, what large teeth you have” in a sequence that has been rendered toothless. Blessedly, the moment is brief.
Speaking of moments, they are what bedevil Into the Woods the most. Because the movie is not making anything close to a concentrated statement, the music and the storylines become vaguely connected moments that build to no discernible end. Some of these moments are quite fine: the princes’ peacockish “Agony” is delightful (but no reprise!) and Streep’s overheated performance finds the right note during “Last Midnight,” but the rest just putters along like an album book of nice but unconnected images. And if a movie were only meaningless moments, even now and then a bad one (and there are several here), but if a movie is only moments, then could you even say you had one?