It’s more difficult to evaluate a musical than a “regular” movie. The whole experience is on an entirely different plane. Characters burst out into song at any moment and everyone else acts like that’s perfectly normal. You don’t see the background orchestra or the conductor, so it’s not a fully fleshed-out musical performance, either. In some ways, it needs to be evaluated both musically and dramatically, but not exclusively by either. And of course, the interplays of the script, orchestration, screenplay and direction all make a huge difference, in part because the viewer is never able to completely engage in suspension of disbelief. As a viewer, you’re never not aware that you’re looking at a movie. You’re not going to “lose yourself” here; you’re always aware that you’re watching actors performing. And of course, your level of enjoyment will vary considerably according to your individual dosage of musicality.
This particular critic’s dosage of musicality is pretty much confined to singing in church choirs and strumming a little guitar. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Under the erroneous assumption that limited life experience is sufficient qualification for music criticism, here goes: The singing in this film is good, but not great. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, who also sang in “Pitch Perfect”), the lead, possesses a kind of nasally soprano that holds the key OK, but doesn’t soar with vibrancy or amaze with rich overtones. The witch (Meryl Streep, who also sang in “Mama Mia”) has a stronger voice, but her determination to rasp and cackle her way through causes the style to overpower the substance. Prince Charming (Chris Pine) can carry a tune just well enough for suitable self-parody. His duet with Rapunzel’s prince (Billy Magnusen) is the genuinely comic moment of this otherwise dark film, which takes place largely in the deep, dense woods where very strange things happen.
In musicals, plots are loose structures, like scaffolding, to hold up the musical numbers, which hang like banners on the scaffolding. The plot here involves the convergence/divergence of several familiar fairy tales. There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, whose breathy little-girl voice has no resonance), Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and an original tale, the baker (James Corden) and the baker’s wife (Emily Blunt), woven into a storyline that depends on some character interaction, some costumes and set design, and a whole lot of the viewer’s imagination. And the Woods is a place where poor Red Riding Hood’s grandmother really can get eaten by The Wolf (Johnny Depp, an accomplished actor whose singing is barely adequate). The Woods is where the witch can demand that the baker and his wife collect the ingredients of a magic potion to restore her former beauty. (Alas, she shouldn’t have bothered, because nobody recognizes her, and nobody cares, which causes her to miss her evil powers of ugliness.) The Woods is where Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) trades his beloved but useless cow for magic beans. And the Woods is where the Giant (Frances de la Tour) stalks the earth in search of the thieving Jack who caused the falling death of her beloved Giant husband (but I really missed the bellowing bass “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum”).
But it’s a pretty dark plot that punishes Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters with blindness. (Are we supposed to think it’s funny that they then stumble over themselves?) It’s even difficult to delight in the vengeance wreaked upon the witch who imprisoned her daughter Rapunzel “for her own good.” Neither Jack nor Little Red Riding Hood actually have homes to go back to. And, can Cinderella and the baker ever forgive their respective spouses for succumbing together to the seductive atmosphere of those deep, anonymous Woods?
Well, give “Into the Woods” very high marks for creativity. You won’t see anything else quite like it on the silver screen this year. But this tart, tangy, little tempest in a teapot will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.