“Into the Woods” is a film people have been anticipating with either glee or dread. On the one hand, it’s an adaptation of a relatively beloved musical–at the very least, one of the most well-known of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals–with an all-star cast that doesn’t leave one largely wondering who thought it was a good idea to cast that actor or actress. On the other hand, it’s produced by Disney and is directed by Rob Marshall, who did the delightful “Chicago”–which along with “Moulin Rouge!” helped resurrect movie musicals–and the bizarre and barely tolerable “Nine,” among other films. (He also did the made for TV movie of “Annie” with Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald and Alan Cumming, which I truly enjoyed and is the only time I’ve enjoyed “Annie.”)
As “Chicago” is fun, but not astounding, and maybe the best movie he had made, there was a bit of concern, especially after “Nine.” “Into the Woods,” however, is a faithful adaptation although not incredibly inventive. It will at the very least satisfy most musical theater nerds and provide a good introduction to the show for the uninitiated.
“Into the Woods” follows the familiar fairy tale characters of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who we know from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” We are also introduced to a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are childless. They find out from their neighbor, a witch (Meryl Streep), that she placed a curse on the baker’s family that they would not have any children after the baker’s father stole magic beans from the witch’s garden. The witch tells the baker and his wife they can have the curse reversed if they bring her the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slippers as pure as gold and the cow as white as milk. The baker sets off on a quest, with his wife following closely behind, while Cinderella tries to go to the festival, Little Red goes to granny’s house and Jack sets off to sell his cow, Milky White, and the character’s paths cross throughout the film. Eventually Cinderella gets her prince (Chris Pine), the baker and his wife get a child and everyone gets their happy ending…until a giant (Frances de la Tour) begins terrorizing the kingdom in search of Jack, who killed her husband when he chopped down the beanstalk.
I should first say “Into the Woods” is not my favorite Sondheim musical–that would be “Sunday in the Park With George”–although I have found as I get older I enjoy “Into the Woods” more. I do not have as much of an emotional stake in this as some people may, but “Into the Woods” still got a lot of play on my iPod in high school and I had a habit in college of watching the PBS film of the original Broadway production. Ultimately, I enjoyed this film possibly more than the musical and found myself getting choked up in some parts.
There are some numbers that are eliminated from the musical, although I only found myself missing “No More,” whose absence is handled well. The movie also tones down the sexual nature of the interaction between the wolf (Johnny Depp, giving what is one of his more restrained performances in the past decade) and Little Red Riding Hood, the brutality of some of the deaths and completely eliminates another character’s death. These changes work in this adaptation since Little Red Riding Hood is played by a girl rather than a teenage girl, although that doesn’t stop “Hello, Little Girl” from still being creepy. The death of both characters are still tragic, although the elimination of the death of Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) does lower the emotional stakes of the witch a bit. (The witch kidnapped Rapunzel from the baker’s parents as payback for the baker’s father taking her greens.)
The musical also isn’t incredibly inspired with how it’s staged. In a way, this works because it avoids from being too inventive and also acts like the characters just sometimes burst into song rather than that they go off into a fantasy world where they sing on stages, as was the case in “Chicago” and “Nine.” The musical numbers largely occur on set pieces where the characters run into each other and sing in the woods, which works and feels safe. There is little in this musical to offend most musical theater fans–I say most because the most ardent will be upset about something. Moments of cleverness in this film arrive with the staging of “Agony,” a comedic self-pitying number from the prince and his brother (Billy Magnussen); and “On the Steps of the Palace,” where time actually stops as Cinderella contemplates her situation.
However, this film is gorgeous to watch and feels natural. It avoids being too chaotic and has performers who never feel stiff. It may have one of the best casts assembled for a movie musical in years where the weakest performance given by one of the lead actors is from Corden, who still gives a good performance, just not as good as the other leads.
Streep’s performance will either be read as another over-the-top performance given by her or one that works well. She twists and contorts prior to her transformation from an old hag to a glamorous blue-haired woman, which is gone post transformation. Her witch sells that she is to be feared and will have revenge without blinking an eye. Once transformed into her younger self, she spends much of the remainder of her on-screen time walking around looking like she’s sick of everyone’s shit, but when she is left by Rapunzel she shows her heartbreak very subtly. During “Last Midnight” her performance builds from the admonishment of everyone to the ache and fury from a woman who is alone, angrily singing the last half of the song. It helps that a furious storm appears, whipping up the leaves, which swirl around her before she disappears, but she breathes new life into the song, making it hers.
Streep doesn’t even give the the best performance in the film, which is divided between Kendrick and Blunt. Kendrick plays Cinderella as clever and caring providing the character with depth. Blunt fills her character with warmth and nervousness where it’s needed while also having a good singing voice. Both her and Kendrick inhabit their characters fully, bringing them to a new life. Every second they’re on screen is a delight.
Crawford manages to provide great sarcasm when it’s needed without it being forced and Huttlestone brings a fantastic eagerness to his role. Elsewhere, Tracey Ullman keeps Jack’s exasperated mother from being too one-note and Christine Baranski tends to steal every scene she’s in as Cinderella’s stepmother.
The film also has lush orchestrations of Sondheim’s score that never feel canned and generally amazing costume designs, although I’m still not sure what to think of Depp’s zoot suit. The film is well-paced, never lagging at all. It even manages to remove parts in Act One of the musical that I felt always dragged the show down a bit.
It is however not a feel-good family film or really even a movie for the whole family. Even if it is not nearly as bleak as the musical, it is still very dark and not something I would take a young child to. If children are taken to see “Into the Woods” the content and themes of the film are worth discussing.
In the end it is one of the better film adaptations of theater to occur in recent years and Marshall’s best film to date*. Although it has some faults, it is enjoyable and manages to simultaneously have a cast of stars–Corden gets to be a star since he won a Tony and is taking over The Late Late Show now that Craig Ferguson is leaving–and a good cast of stars who do not feel miscast. It does not disservice Sondheim’s work and hopefully introduces a new generation to an excellent introduction to a good musical.
*”Chicago” was fun, but not a great film and “Memoirs of a Geisha” was beautiful to look at, but dull as hell.