The woods of Into the Woods, director Rob Marshall’s lush and artful rendering of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy-tale musical for grownups, are not the peaceful place Robert Frost evoked in his poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Frost wrote: The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Sondheim, Lapine and Marshall had other ideas.
Their woods, shot so beautifully by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha), are certainly dark and deep, sometimes lovely too. But they’re also mysterious, dangerous and life-altering. The woods of Into the Woods symbolize that thing called life, a journey filled with joy and sorrow, triumph and disappointment, fulfillment and angst.
Marshall, who established himself as a great movie musical director with 2002’s Oscar-winning Chicago, has done a masterful job of collaborating with Sondheim and Lapine to transform their 1987 Tony Award-winning, two-act musical into a film that flows seamlessly as it juggles its intertwining storylines.
Lapine’s dialogue and Sondheim’s lyrics utilize familiar fairy-tale figures out of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, weaving them into a central narrative involving new characters: a Baker (James Corden), his Wife (Emily Blunt) and a Witch (Meryl Streep).
Cursed with childlessness by the Witch, the couple is tasked with collecting four items that will reverse a curse placed on her, one that transformed her from a beauty into a hag. In three days, by the time a once-in-a-century blue moon rises, the Baker and his Wife have to provide the Witch with a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a slipper as pure as gold. The Witch can’t go on the quest herself, as the curse can’t be lifted if she touches any of the items.
Each thing belongs to a different well-known character.
Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of Jack-and-the-Beanstalk fame, is reluctantly taking his beloved cow Milky-White to market so he and his frustrated Mother (Tracey Ullman) won’t starve. The yellow hair belongs to Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), shut up in a tower by the Witch to isolate her from the dangers of the world. The cape is worn by Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), at least until she’s devoured by the lascivious Wolf (Johnny Depp). And the slipper belongs to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), an indecisive young woman who flees her handsome Prince (Chris Pine) three nights in a row.
Opening with a lengthy, jaunty version of the title number, the movie establishes its world, the way its characters will flow from song to speech and back, the longing that drives everyone toward an elusive happily-ever-after.
The beautiful songs from Sondheim’s intricate score — including A Very Nice Prince, Giants in the Sky, On the Steps of the Palace, Children Will Listen, No One Is Alone, the hilarious princely duet Agony — are delivered by a cast of movie stars who can actually sing, a few at a level that would allow them to dazzle for eight shows a week on Broadway.
The standouts vocally are Kendrick, who was so impressive in Pitch Perfect and sings the lead in the movie version of Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years, and Blunt as the conflicted Baker’s Wife. Both have lovely soprano voices that they use as another expressive acting tool.
Streep’s voice is smaller, but far better here than it was on the fluffy Mamma Mia!. If any actor could interpret and convey the complexities of Sondheim’s music, it’s the three-time Oscar winner, who communicates the damaged woman inside the Witch’s frightening exterior — and who looks stunning in costume designer Colleen Atwood’s gorgeous getup, post-curse reversal.
Regular-guy Corden and the comically pompous Pine (who gets to say the Prince’s great line, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”) sing well, as do the kids in the movie, Huttlestone (who played Gavroche in the Les Misérables movie) and Crawford (a recent Broadway Annie). Depp’s creepy lupine character is done up in a zoot suit, a triumph of style over vocal substance.
That Into the Woods is a Disney movie musical with a PG rating might tempt some parents to take little ones to this fine fairy-tale film. Just know that, as in life, bad stuff happens: Cinderella’s stepsisters get parts of their feet sliced off to try to fit into the golden slipper, later getting blinded by birds; Little Red Riding Hood gets devoured by the Wolf and exacts a bloody revenge; the Baker’s Wife has a tryst that leads to tragedy.
But for anyone who can appreciate the darker side of fairy-tales told in a musical with depth and nuance, Into the Woods is a journey worth taking.
Cast: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, James Corden, Tracey Ullman, Billy Magnussen, MacKenzie Mauzy, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch.
Director: Rob Marshall.
Screenwriter: James Lapine.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 124 minutes. Contains peril, violence, death and some suggestive material. Playing at: area theaters.