"Into the Woods" is one of the worst A-list-star, major-studio movies I have ever seen. It lacks magic. It's boring and it is so inept it's actually offensive. Performances by international stars like Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp go kerplunk on the screen, without motivation or artistry. The cinematography is murky and flat, as if provided by Moe's Sporting Goods and Cinematography-To-Go.
The problem of "Into the Woods" can be summed up in one word: "meta." "Into the Woods" is an attempt to *tell* fairy tales while simultaneously making meta commentary *about* fairy tales. The film fails on both points.
Imagine someone telling you an anecdote about what happened with their day, and stopping after every line to say, "At this point, you should be feeling empathy because I have just told you a sad thing. At this point, you should be feeling exhilaration, because I have just told you a celebratory thing. At this point, you should be concluding that Obama's economic policies have failed, because I have just told you that I do not have enough money for lunch. At this point, you should be feeling frustrated, because I have just defied your expectations of how this story should end."
Think of how rapidly that storytelling style would grate on you.
"Into the Woods"'s plot is a regurgitated slop, with several fairy tales mined for their money shots and slapped together in order to make some arcane point about how fairy tales are really psychologically and socially complex documents, full of implications about sexuality, gender roles, parent-child relations, and economic inequity.
There's no narrative drive, no need to see what will happen next. The plot elements were just thrown in the air and allowed to fall to the ground in a random fashion. There is no main character to root for. There's no goal to be achieved and celebrate or mourn for. None of the actors can register a breath of conviction because there's nothing happening that anyone could care about. When the movie feels over, it suddenly lurches on for twenty more minutes.
The music and songs do not deserve to be called either "music" or "songs." Is Stephen Sondheim the first fully deaf man ever to make a career as a composer and lyricist? Does he compose his music and lyrics by throwing darts at a piano and a thesaurus? I saw Rodgers and Hammerstein's magical "Cinderella" when I was around five years old. I have not seen it since. I can still sing some of the songs, they touched me that deeply, especially "In my own little corner," which captures the heart and soul of every little girl who ever felt alone and escaped on dreams to a better world.
I couldn't begin to recapitulate a single one of the songs from "Into the Woods" and I saw it just a few days ago, except for the line "Children will listen." All I remember is: "Children will listen blah blah blah." Actually, since it's Stephen Sondheim, it's more like "Chil' dren will LISten blah blah BLIIIH." With the "BLIIIH" on a minor key.
There's a scene where two dueling handsome princes sing a competitive song: I'm more handsome than you; I am suffering more than you are suffering romantically. It's a great concept accompanied by a lousy song and even worse execution. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, both talented stars, are directed to move without grace or charm, and they do all this in leather clothing in a waterfall. The entire time you are thinking, "Wow, that water is really gonna ruin that leather."
Fairy tales are magic. Fairy tales do make important points about gender roles, socioeconomic inequities, and parent-child-relations. Fairy tales are deep. If you want to immerse yourself in those points, read scholars like Bruno Bettleheim, Alan Dundes and Bengt Holbek. Ripping the innards out of a fairy tale and tossing those innards about randomly kills the tale. All you get is inert fairy tale innards. "Into the Woods" isn't sophisticated or intelligent, as it desperately wants to be. It isn't saying big, thoughtful things about fairy tales. It's just a big, meandering, amateurish misfire created by people who really aren't as sophisticated as they think they are.