No matter how it performs in theaters, Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's dark, glorious and supremely messy fairy-tale mash-up musical/therapy session is now forever a pop-culture curio unwary kids will stumble upon to their bafflement and betterment. The princess-party punch bowl has forever been spiked.
Here's wicked stepsisters who hack off toes to cram their feet into Cinderella's slippers. Here's a noble heroine who cheats on her husband just because she gets lost in a moment. Here's a mother who imprisons her daughter out of love, and the callow lover who will climb into that daughter's tower — and most likely cheat on her, too, someday. And here's a Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) whose flock of bird companions occasionally peck out her enemies' eyes.
Better still: Sumptuously gowned, Cinderella flees prince and ball three nights running not because of plot-driven fairy magic. No, she dashes for reasons she doesn't understand herself until much later, after she has relented to royal wooing, after she has won everything any princess-minded tween has ever ached for — come to find out, the wishing beats the hell out of the having.
The wishing for a big-screen Into the Woods might best the reality, too, despite Kendrick's glittering turn and the wonders of Sondheim's brittle-witty score, which is mostly intact, right down to the fussy stuff about how the cow's "withers wither with her." Onstage, even a first-rate Into the Woods is an exhausting triumph — it's the show whose first half your relatives adore, and whose second, when Grimm and Freud met Pirandello, leaves them restless and discomfited. (The best meta-joke has been cut for the film: There is no narrator to be sacrificed to the angry giantess.) Onscreen, exhaustion sets in much earlier, perhaps unavoidably so. Into the Woods is all about archetypes running hither and thither, questing and belting, their stories glancing against each other in that fairy-tale space of an enchanted forest so dark and uncivilized that it reveals their truest selves. In a live performance, we can observe multiple stories at once, the actors occupying different copses — we're invited to savor the correspondences. In the movie, Marshall simply cuts from one cast member to the next, isolating his actors — and robbing us of the chance to choose what to see. There's little sense that the fairy-tale space is a shared one. Instead, too much of this Into the Woods feels like it's just a bunch of noisy incidents transpiring in unrelated treestands.
That PG proves almost as limiting as Marshall's film technique. The film plays admirably rough for its rating, but still some adult material gets axed: The baker's wife's (Emily Blunt, who is stellar) passionate hookup with a princeling here is as chaste as it would be in a Catholic high school's production — a concession that emphasizes the cruel randomness of that character's ultimate fate. Marshall has preserved some daring lyrics sung by Red Riding Hood: She's kind of into being swallowed by hunky wolves, and she insists afterwards that now she's seen marvels she never would have known to seek out. But the film (and Johnny Depp's wan performance) shies away from showing us that she's turned on by her stalking — or that being ravished is some comic rite of passage. If he's not going to dare explore it, why leave in Sondheim's jeweled (and now context-free) verses about the pleasures of being led astray by horny carnivores? An even more pressing question: How does Depp fail to stir a laugh with the can't-miss line "There's no possible way to describe what you feel / When you're talking to your meal"? (Somewhere, at this moment, a producer is assuring Depp that even though a role sounds entirely wrong for him, he will get to wear a funny hat.)
Marshall's Into the Woods doesn't ever cohere, and it gets worse as it goes, especially in that giant-slaying climax that barely worked even with the original Broadway cast. Still, I value its highlights, and will on occasion look them up on YouTube: Kendrick singing "On the Steps of the Palace," her twinkling qualities illuminating real human anxieties even as she slips her feet from shoes stuck fast in pitch; Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen wringing the comic "Agony" for hilarious mock pathos; the baker's wife thinking through the carnal sin the movie can't quite admit she's committed; Meryl Streep's hectoring hip-hop number about magic beans, the only time she was onscreen I wasn't wishing she were Bernadette Peters instead. That last highlight comes first and is part of a broader, longer one: The first 20 minutes, comprising several ensemble-led numbers and peaking with the cast venturing off on their missions, is sublime, both the best patch of the show itself — and the best stretch of movie musical that Marshall, director of Chicago and Nine, has yet mounted. (The characters seem to share the theatrical space, as they would onstage.) I'm tempted to wish for more, but maybe we should learn to be happy with what we have.