Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 December 2014


I feel like I am forever complaining about Hollywood musicals.

I didn't like their version of Les Misérables in 2012, and I didn't like Nine back in 2009, and I thought Chicago was pretty good, but not very well imagined. And then there was Sweeney Todd. Oof. The Phantom of the Opera. Awful. Dreamgirls was pretty good and I remember sort of liking Hairspray – those two are better than the rest of them, but movie versions of Broadway musicals have, to my mind, tended to suck.

And the reason for this is that they are filled with Hollywood stars and all directed by Rob Marshall. I exaggerate, obviously, but here's the thing: musicals are about singing. And yet Hollywood insists on casting movie stars who by and large cannot sing, or at least can't sing very well. So the music is rewritten so that the stars can hit the notes; or worse: we all pretend that the stars can actually hit the notes of the songs (*cough* Hugh Jackman *cough*).

And so we have Into the Woods, which should have been a slam dunk, right? It's charming, it's hilarious, it's big big big, and the stage version has always made a joke of having a fake cow, fake magic birds, and a fake giantess who destroys things. This works on stage, but in the movies it could work even better, right? Giants! Beanstalks! Fun!

But... it's Rob Marshall, who only wants to direct on sound stages, and can't ever seem to blow the roof off of any movie he's ever made. Every scene feels like it was designed for the stage and never for the camera. He simply doesn't direct for the camera. It's as though he doesn't make movies at all. A guy like Kenny Ortega does this kind of thing so much better, and yet Disney hires him to do television work and they give Marshall the big-budget studio jobs. I don't get it.

There is one scene in Into the Woods that doesn't feel like it was shot on a stage, and it is (and I know everyone will agree with me about this) the best number in the entire film: Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen's rendition of Agony, which is laugh-out-loud funny and performed brilliantly. Everything else feels like a stage number, even though we are up close and personal with the performers, Marshall's Into the Woods feels claustrophobic, small town (it's not intimate we're just nearer). Imagine, for example, scenes shot in real woods with natural lighting. You won't see that in this movie. Everything is a stage.

And this "small town" feel is the thing that sticks out to me the most as a viewer. The performers can't quite manage to do the roles as written – that's just a fact. And the director hasn't really imagined the show in a new and interesting way. So I couldn't shake the feeling that what I was watching when I saw Into the Woods was a really expensive community theatre production of the show. (I said the same thing about Les Misérables: "for me the film version of Les Mis is like watching a community theatre try to put on the show, except that the community theatre is Hollywood and the audience is just proud of these actors for doing their best. It's kind of like if our own six-year-old tried to sing Jean Valjean and we decided to give the little guy an Oscar for trying so hard.") It's slightly better with Into the Woods because the singers are better, and slightly worse because Rob Marshall is worse.

As everyone who has ever worked on the show knows, Into the Woods has its problems. Marshall solves none of them. Instead, he compounds them, sidelining the show's big number "Children Will Listen", and ratcheting down the comedy by cutting the "Agony Reprise" and even the witch's funny bits. Jack's mom, too – although she is a hilarious character onstage and is played in the film by comedienne Tracey Ullman – is played completely straight and doesn't get a single laugh. And Marshall seems not to understand quite what Into the Woods is about: that fairy tales affect children deeply, that we can't plan for the future even when we think we know what we want, that the world has things in store for us that we don't understand, that people change, which means that what you wish for at one point in your life may not be exactly what you end up wanting, that even wishing itself is circumscribed by social standing and economic circumstances, and that parenting is extremely difficult even in the best of circumstances. Marshall's film doesn't discuss any of these ideas with any real depth, and when it has the opportunity to do so (with the Witch and Rapunzel, with Cinderella's lack of desire for her own prince) it squanders this time.

The movie is not completely without merit, though. Little Daniel Huttlestone, who, as Gavroche, was the best thing about the Les Misérables movie, sings the role of Jack beautifully. And although what we see while Jack is singing "Giants in the Sky" makes literally no sense, what we hear is gorgeous. Huttlestone's voice is bright and clear and honest, and I appreciated all of his scenes. This is especially important because the emotional resonance of the show rests, eventually, on Jack and Little Red.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep: delightful to watch, totally committed, fascinating. But... the Witch in this Into the Woods wasn't that much fun. I said already that Marshall got rid of all of her good jokes, but even the ones that stayed in ("You should see my nectarines!") fall flat here. Streep's Witch is a creepy, odd figure. She's funny when she flies at the Baker and his wife at one point in act two, but mostly, she is so intense that she is hard to take as a figure of fun. Part of this has to do with just how fully Streep is willing to disappear into the role. The role doesn't want this kind of intense identificatory acting. It needed something a bit more ironic, with a few more winks to the audience.

Oh and Johnny Depp has a single scene in this movie. Did you know that? He plays a strange man-wolf kind of creature. Why didn't they make him a CGI Andy Serkis-type wolf? I have no idea. Wolves in this wood wear zoot suits? Apparently. And – as with "Giants in the Sky", Little Red's song about the Wolf's death ("I Know Things Now") – is staged in a totally bizarre, almost surreal manner that hasn't a thing to do with the reality of the film. I do not get it.

I spent so much of this film thinking... huh?

As for Oscar, it will get a few nominations, I expect, but it will not be getting a makeup nomination, which might seem odd, given the way Meryl Streep looks throughout the film. Sound Mixing?