With Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt. Written by James Lapine. Directed by Rob Marshall. Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material. 124 minutes.
There was reason to be fearful of the film adaptation of INTO THE WOODS. Stephen Sondheim musicals have not made the transition well. The screen version of “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” is a pale shadow of the original, trying to hard to use film tricks instead of letting the material speak for itself. “A Little Night Music,” a sheer delight on stage, may be one of the worst movie musicals ever. “Sweeney Todd” worked surprisingly well but was tough on unsuspecting viewers.
Now with “Into The Woods,” we have a Sondheim musical–with James Lapine adapting his book for the show–which does it justice. The premise of the show is to combine and overlap several fairy tales. There’s the story of Jack (Daniel Huddlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman) who get a surprise when he trades their cow for some magic beans. There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) encounting a Wolf (Johnny Depp) on her way to grandmother’s house. There’s poor Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who wants to go to the ball to meet the prince (Chris Pine). There’s Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) locked up in her tower. And there’s a fairy tale made up for the show, about a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are childless because of a curse placed on his family by a witch (Meryl Streep).
The first part of the film pretty much follows the stories as you expect them to go. Then we get to the “happily ever afters” and find out they’re not so happy after all. In fact they’re downright complicated, as the characters–well, the surviving characters, anyway–figure out how they’re going to get through the messes created by their original tales. It’s a fascinating conceit for those old enough to appreciate it and simply a more complex fairy tale for others.
Through it all is Sondheim’s wonderful score and his brilliantly witty lyrics. Some of the songs are touching or profound (“No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen”) while others are hilarious send-ups of their fairy tales as with the Wolf’s “Hello Little Girl” and the duet of the two princes (Pine, Billy Magnussen) over the “Agony” they supposedly feel over their romantic lives.
As with “Chicago,” director Rob Marshall succeeds in transforming a stage musical into one on film. He makes good use of Hollywood magic to make the fairy tale magic seem real in a way that is not possible on stage. In terms of the performances, the women fare best although Pine has a field day as the egotistical Prince Charming. Blunt and Kendrick are both superb in their roles both in acting and singing. As for Streep, one might have been nervous after her last effort in a musical (the abysmal “Mamma Mia”), especially stepping into a role that had been defined by Bernadette Peters on stage. She is wonderful here, once again creating a character wholly unlike any other that she’s played.
The musical was once a Hollywood mainstay but in recent years–as with the romantic comedy–few people there seem willing to learn and modernize the lessons of the past, which perhaps explains why we get movies like the current “Annie.” Fortunately in the case of “Into The Woods” they get it exactly right•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.