For some 20 years, film-makers have been tried and failed to adapt Stephen Sondheim musical Into The Woods for the big screen. Disney and Chicago director Rob Marshall have at long last made it happen but, for all its good performances, the result only serves as proof of why it was such a troubled project to begin with.
It begins in a village on the edge of a magical wood, where a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) live frustrated by their lack of family. The reason for their ironic inability to put a bun in the oven is a curse put upon them by the witch next door (Meryl Streep).
Granting them the chance to rid themselves of the curse, the witch tasks the husband and wife with finding four items that will see them cross paths with the characters of four famous fairy tales: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame.
As it turns out, the baking pair's fetch quest leads results in them meddling with the famous tales – leading to a subversive final act with a poignant message surmised in the film's tagline: "Be careful what you wish for."
The film begins with a flourish as the pieces are moved into place and the plot set up as Streep's witch enters the bakery, eating all the scenery but none of the buns. It is no surprise she is great (for two thirds of the film at least), so instead praise should be laid at the feet of the excellent Blunt and Chris Pine, whose Prince Charming is regularly hilarious.
Blunt and Corden ground the film well, allowing Streep, Pine and others (Cinderella's stepmother and sisters in particular) to truly tear it up. Caught in the middle is Kendrick's Cinderella, who is quite obviously there to sing rather than act. The remaining performances are perfectly fine – the child stars are child stars, Mauzy's long-haired maiden is underserved and Billy Magnussen's Prince has no chance when compared to Pine's.
That said, it is the two Princes who star in the film's standout scene – a combative duet called Agony, in which the pair try to prove who is the most lovelorn. Other standout songs include the 15-minute opening number Into The Woods and Blunt's climatic Moments In The Woods – but that's really all there is.
At two hours, the film feels too long and that's not helped by a fake-out ending dropped a good 30 to 40 minutes from the real end. It whips the carpet out from under its audience and the film never really recovers.
This is done to highlight that all-important lesson about wishes but it does not carry that point to a satisfying conclusion.
The threat is weak (the budget only stretches to one beanstalk-clambering giant - and not a very good one) and the two final twists fall flat. In one instance, this is because the harsh reality of it is never really conveyed, and in the other because the fallout does not seem to carry much importance.
There are also plot points that are not revisited – one left hanging throughout the film and another brought up and then dropped five minutes later.
The story's message is admirable, and how it attempts to convey it is clever – especially considering the young audience – but in this film version (I have not seen the musical), it does not carry enough weight.
Into The Woods brings together and entwines its fairy tales well and the results are fun for the most part but the pay-off for crossing those streams is lacking. Had the film ended at its initial (fake) ending, it may well have been a better film – if not one of much substance – and, for a story that goes out of its way to have substance, that is a big problem.
Oh, and Johnny Depp is in it for five minutes...