“Into the Woods” Skims Surface of Sondheim

imageRob Marshall’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods (B) is quite faithful in spirit to its fractured fairy tale source material, but the director fails to truly plumb the emotional resonance of its “beyond happily ever after” themes. The film involves a quest that brings together intersecting storybook characters; and although often episodic, it works best when a thematic through-line is evident. Emily Blunt, fresh off her triumph in Edge of Tomorrow, is the breakout musical star here as the baker’s wife on a journey to break a spell that prevents her from having a child. Portraying a lowkey and indecisive Cinderella, Anna Kendrick is also a delight. As the witch, Meryl Streep gets the songs right, but her performance could have used some tighter intentions. I blame that as well on Marshall: you have to edit pretty poorly to put Miss Streep in a bad light. The music numbers including “Agony” and “No One is Alone” and some humorous throwaway bits are highlights (Chris Pine is the male standout as a vain prince). The effects and the drab, monotonous look and feel of much of the film’s second half are drawbacks (No, Rob, shaking the camera is not equivalent to directing an action sequence). The piece famously changes tone midway, and Marshall isn’t quite up to the challenge of sustaining the momentum properly. Not as good or inventive as his Chicago but certainly more cogent than his Nine, this musical adaptation is straightforward but lacks the ambition that might have made it an instant classic.