Revisionist tellings are the thing these days, and upending popular notions of heroism, chivalry, and romance says something about our willingness to part with the way things are supposed to be and instead see things the way they are. Maybe that’s some of the appeal of reality TV, which pretends to be a reflection of some life, though never one that I lead. There is also the much lauded boom of anti-heroes, mostly men, mostly white, fronting massive hit television shows. We like them because they’re badass, or complex as critics say, but also because they share our penchant for really screwing things up.
So it’s appropriate that Into the Woods, the beloved stage musical, is finally getting the flashy cinematic treatment after years in development hell. A staple for the Broadway set, it sucked the glitter out of fairy tales long before Wicked and Frozen’s far tamer efforts at subversion. Was it worth the wait? I can guess what purists would say but for my money, Rob Marshall’s star-studded film delivers a magical and poignant adaptation that may not equal the stage production but is a worthy substitute.
Into the Woods was always a scattershot story, combining pieces of half a dozen fairy tales to create a new anti-fairy tale. In translating the musical to the screen, James Lapine, who penned the original book, excises a few deaths and romantic liaisons and trims some roles. The result is still sprawling, just less so.
The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) center the story with their desire to have a child. Their neighbor, a hideous witch (Meryl Streep) who cursed the family line, promises to grant their wish if they can collect certain items within three days time. They must find the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.
The couple set off into the woods and gradually encounter some familiar characters. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of beanstalk fame, is forced by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his beloved cow so that they don’t starve. Little Red (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to visit her old grandmother. Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is locked in her tower, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is running to and from the King’s festival.
Each has something that the Baker and his Wife need, and in their desperation, the couple resort to trickery and outright theft to get it. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a sanitized fairy tale, and those fantasies are precisely what Into the Woods aims to deconstruct. There’s a happily ever after, but it occurs midway through the movie, leaving the second act fertile ground for the dashing of dreams.
Director Marshall has the monstrous task of bringing the beast to life and is more successful with this than with his previous efforts in the genre. Whereas Chicago and Nine are characterized by frenetic direction and editing, here Marshall leads with a more patient hand. It helps that the movie is firmly planted in a world given to the magic of musical storytelling. He lets the lyrics and characters dictate the camera’s eye, and it roams leisurely over the impressive set. (It also helps that he didn’t attempt to film in 3D.)
The movie avoids another pitfall that plagues film adaptations of musicals by casting actors who can sing. They might not all have the power of Broadway vocalists, but their voices suit the medium. Blunt, in particular, brings a gentle nuance to her role as the Baker’s Wife and is especially moving in “Finale/Children Will Listen.” Kendrick already has a Tony nomination (for High Society) to back her up, and Huttlestone and Crawford are likewise experienced singers who add perk but much knowing to their young characters. After a middling performance in Mamma Mia!, I didn’t hold out great hopes for Streep, but she lives up to her billing, instilling fear and ache in equal measure. The real discovery though is Chris Pine, who puts his leading man reputation to good use. Not only does he belt out the film’s funniest number (“Agony” with Billy Magnussen), he proves that he’s damn good at comedy. His buffoonish, over-the-top Prince Charming is something to savor.
Of course the real magic is in Lapine’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The words and melodies are some of the most haunting and emotional on stage. As disjointed as the story may seem at times, the moments of clarity each character experiences are arresting and ring with truth, ripping the fairy tales from colorful pages and throwing them into reality. There is charm, beauty, and enchantment, but there is also selfishness, greed, and lust. And while the stories we tell try to keep kids’ naïveté intact, Lapine and Sondheim remind you that children see the world around them. They grow up, and they can’t always be protected. Says Little Red after she’s been tempted and devoured by the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and then freed by the Baker, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not.”
“Careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see and turn against you.”
“Agony” by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen:
“I Know Things Now” by Lilla Crawford:
“There are Giants in the Sky” by Daniel Huttlestone:
“No One is Alone” by Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, and Daniel Huttlestone:
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt, Callum McDougal
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: James Lapine
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Joanna Riding, Frances de la Tour, Richard Glover, Simon Russell Beale
Time: 124 min
Country: United States