"Into The Woods" Proves Essential For Musical Fans

For decades, the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s subversive fairy-tale-gone-wrong Broadway smash “Into The Woods” was thought lost to development hell, one of hundreds of downed planes in Hollywood’s own Bermuda Triangle. Whispers of the project came and went, only to resurface in 2013 in the unlikeliest of places. Disney? The same studio built on a chassis of happily ever afters? Following a publicly stormy production cycle, director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) has found himself the proud father of a small miracle – a first-rate film adaptation of “Into The Woods.”

The musical’s clever repurposing of four Brothers Grimm fairy tales – Cinderella, Jack And The Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel – likely won’t hit audiences the same way it did in 1987, but Sondheim’s music and lyrics and James Lapine’s book remain ahead of the curve. Faithfully walking a line between romp and tragedy, Marshall’s take on the material is suitably self aware, giving his expansive cast plenty of room to play.

James Corden (“Begin Again”) and Emily Blunt (“Edge Of Tomorrow”) star as the Baker and the Baker’s wife, two of the musical’s three original characters. The third, a hot-tempered Witch (Meryl Streep) agrees to undo the curse she placed on the Baker’s family – leaving the couple unable to have children – but only with the receipt of four rare items. Enter the aforementioned classic characters plucked straight from childhood staples.

Anna Kendrick (“Pitch Perfect”) co-stars as Cinderella, Chris Pine (“Star Trek”) as her Prince Charming, newcomers Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, along with an enormous supporting cast that includes Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, MacKenzie Mauzy, Lucy Punch, and Billy Magnussen.

Johnny Depp features in a small, largely forgettable turn as the Wolf that stalks Red Riding Hood. It’s a far cry from his previous venture into Sondheim land – as the title character in Tim Burton’s fiercely entertaining “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet” – but it’s so brief as to leave no impression at all.

As the various story threads are interwoven via Sondheim’s incomparably wordy lyrics and labyrinthine melodies, Marshall wields the project’s modest $50 million budget impressively. It’s a world that feels smaller than expected given the talent involved, but it mirrors the intimacy of the stage production, giving moviegoers a front row seat to the unraveling of some universally beloved characters.

As their flaws bubble to the surface and darkness seeps in, “Into The Woods” creeps from light spoof to morality play where familiarity is swapped for ambiguity. By the time Pine’s Prince informs Cinderella that he was “raised to be charming, not sincere,” his previous, hilarious musical number “Agony” is effortlessly recontexualized. In that single line lies one of the great majesties of Sondheim – the ability to speak directly to audience expectations without speaking down to anyone.

It’s a balancing act that Rob Marshall shows surprising talent for – almost as surprising as Disney’s decision not to declaw the story. From its lengthy but rapid-fire opening musical number to Jack’s soaring “Giants In The Sky,” the project glows with talent, top to bottom.

Act three is a long, frequently gloomy plod through some intense emotional terrain and a few of its narrative developments don’t make any sense. But it’s necessary to drive home the story’s moral relativism and its real-world implications. While never feel-good, the movie manages to end on a hopeful note, tidily tying up all loose ends while staying true to the aim of the stage version.

On screen, “Into The Woods” remains a master class in deconstruction, an effortless exercise in thread pulling that might as well be all-new to 2014. Despite some curiously small staging necessitated by budgetary restrictions, Marshall’s take should age every bit as well as its source material. Guided by predictably great performances from Streep, Blunt, and Kendrick, general audiences should ultimately find their way to the film’s peculiar rhythms. As for Sondheim fans, they’ll only have trouble in containing their joy.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 25, 2014
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: James Lapine
Starring: Emily Blunt, James Corden, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone,Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, MacKenzie Mauzy, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material)