Based on the 1987 Tony-nominated Broadway musical of the same name, Into the Woods shows what could happen if you threw a bunch of fairy tale characters together in the same story and watched as their worlds collided and intertwined.
The film focuses on a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) as they set out to collect magical items (red cape, white cow, gold shoe and hair the color of corn) to have a curse placed on their family tree reversed by the local witch (the always incredible Meryl Streep). Along the way their paths cross with a precocious Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) in route to her sick granny, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) fleeing the attraction of the prince (a scene-stealing Chris Pine–who knew he could sing!), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) locked in a tall tower, and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of beanstalk fame. The all-star cast also includes Tracy Ullman (as Jack’s Mom), Christine Baranski (as Cinderella’s Stepmother), and a miscast Johnny Depp (as The Wolf who preys on LRRH).
I was worried heading in to watch the film as I’ve long been a fan of the musical. Would it hold a candle to the original cast recording that I listened to on repeat in high school or the DVD of the televised airing? Would it work as a film? I also worried that audiences wouldn’t get Stephen Sondheim’s songs, especially since the majority of the show’s dialogue is sung. Boy was I happy once the end credits rolled and I could say that Rob Marshall’s film really nailed it. Marshall and his team assembled a talented cast (actors that can actually sing–Anna and Meryl brought new life to their songs) and created a magical world of rich colors, textures, and shadows.
Of course there were a few things I liked better in the stage version (for instance ‘No More’ a song sung by the Baker and the Mysterious Man was cut), but the story is so wonderfully told through the medium of film that you hesitate making comparisons with the original. Sondheim fans will enjoy hearing such favorites including ‘No One is Alone,’ ‘Children Will Listen’ and ‘On the Steps of the Palace.’ And new audiences will fall in love with his genius, witty and heartfelt lyrics.
Into the Woods takes its audience on a familiar journey and then changes course half way through. It explores the consequences of having a wish granted and shows what happens after ‘happily ever after.’ This is a film that I’d like to see again on the big screen and one I’m sure I’ll own on DVD one day.
I get the impression that there are two sorts of people: those who know exactly what Into the Woods is, with such familiarity that they sort of roll their eyes and say, “it’s only been performed in every high school ever”, and the rest of us, who simply know that it’s a fairy tale thing where Meryl Streep plays a witch. The second group of people may be surprised to learn that Into the Woods is a musical. Not a here’s-a-song-once-in-awhile musical, but a full on Stephen Sondheim musical where dialogue and action merely serve as glue for all the songs. Have I mentioned all the songs? You’ll really want to be aware of all the songs.
Admittedly, when the movie began with a song, I was taken aback. There was no time to settle in or work up to it, and I immediately started flinching and wondering how I would survive the next two hours. It was just…unexpected. Thankfully the story takes off quickly, and is buoyed along by familiar faces. James Corden and Emily Blunt star as The Baker and his wife, kind, humble folk who only wish for a child. Their world is turned on its ear when The Witch (Meryl Streep) swoops into their shop and explains that a family curse has left them barren. The only way to “reverse the curse” is to go into the woods and collect a red cape, a white cow, a gold slipper, and hair as yellow as corn. This sets the stage for a lot of singing. Er, excuse me, this sets the stage for various fairy tale characters to interact.
A precocious and somewhat ravenous Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) sets out to visit her grandmother, only to encounter The Wolf (Johnny Depp). A poor boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) must sell his beloved cow because it has stopped giving milk. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) dreams of attending the King’s Festival, though has a rather fickle reaction to the prince’s advances. And locked away in a tower is Rapunzel, whose long silken hair provides her only access to the outside world and her beloved prince. Eventually each of these characters bump into the Baker or his wife, and as their stories become increasingly intertwined, a new fairy tale begins to emerge.
There is plenty to recommend about Into the Woods. The performances and production values are all top-notch, the songs are peppered with wry, humorous lyrics, and Emily Blunt and James Corden are especially charming…I hated it.
Hate is a strong word, but I feel as though I’m still trying to talk myself into liking Into the Woods. The jokes never evoked more than a weak smile, no one character was compelling enough to root for, the ending was strange, and after a point the singing just seemed abusive. I think it’s well made. I think some people will love it. But I don’t feel it.