If you go watch Into The Woods today...
You might leave with mixed feelings.
Adapting Stephen Sondheim's musical to the big screen was always going to be a challenge seeing as the whole thing's like one big song sung by loads of main characters, each of them doing their own thing at the same time around a purposely convoluted plot. As the film is an hour shorter than the play, a lot of songs and plot threads were always going to get the chop and this could have easily destroyed a film with a lot of potential. Luckily, director Rob Marshall has his share of experience making movie musicals (Chicago, Nine) so he keeps the film afloat through succesfully capturing the essence of the stage play and getting the best out of his all-star cast. The songs are as endearing and catchy as ever from the long opening ensemble number "Prologue: Into The Woods" to the heartbreaking "Stay With Me" and the upbeat "Giants In The Sky", not to mention The Wolf's unapologetically pervy, potentially disturbing tune "Hello, Little Girl".
Now, as much as I enjoyed Into The Woods and its songs, the film still failed to work as well as the staged original, in my opinion. As I mentioned before, this is one of those musicals that's more like one epic song with variations rather than a mix of different things so in a concentrated 2 hour-long film it gets a bit much. And with so many storylines going on, it all becomes a bit overwhelming, hard to follow even. It doesn't help that the fun-packed first half feels rushed and too busy while the more serious and reflective second half feels nearly empty and overlong. There's definitely an error in pacing here since this is in no way an issue in the stage play. The film is sadly uneven in terms of tone, visuals and performances so it's very likely you'll leave the cinema not really knowing what to make of it.
There are some stand-out brilliant moments, though: Chris Pine hamming it up as one of the princes, pretty much anything involving Little Red Riding Hood, Meryl Streep's spot-on performance as the witch, Emily Blunt's surprisingly effective singing voice, the creepy Depp cameo and all the jokes cleverly poking fun at the Grimm fairy-tales we all know and love. Not to mention the fantastic score and the fascinating themes the film explores from parenthood to growing-up and making sense of your life to dealing with the past and being careful what you wish for. Some casting decisions are questionable, however, James Corden and Anna Kendrick being a couple, some parts feel needlessly stagey, and some of the changes to the story do stand out as awkward, unfinished plot-lines: Rapunzel just kinda leaves the movie, for example.
That said, I do recommend Into The Woods to fans of musicals and the classic fairy-tales referenced here. It'll introduce you to a fabulously nutty cult Sondheim creation you might very well fall in love with. As a film, this one works about as well as Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd in that it's both great and it doesn't fully work somehow.
I liked it but it's certainly not for everybody.