Into the Woods

Hmm… Disney production of a revisionist Sondheim musical with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty omitted? oAcademy Award winner Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine and Academy Award nominee Johnny Depp star in Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods.

Into the WoodsCast of Characters:
The Witch – Meryl Streep
The Baker’s Wife – Emily Blunt
The Baker – James Corden
Cinderella – Anna Kendrick
Prince Charming – Chris Pine
Jack’s Mother – Tracey Ullman
Cinderella’s Stepmother – Christine Baranski
Little Red Riding Hood – Lilla Crawford
Rapunzel – Mackenzie Mauzy
Jack – Daniel Huttlestone
The Wolf – Johnny Depp

Director – Rob Marshall
Screenplay – James Lapine
Based on the musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine
Producer – John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt & Callum McDougall
Rated PG for for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material

Set in an alternate world of Grimm fairy tales, Into the Woods centers around a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who have been cursed childless by a Witch (Meryl Streep). In order to end the curse, they must venture into the woods to find for the Witch objects belonging to various storybook characters such as Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the beanstalk.

Last week’s Annie definitely didn’t put me in the mood for another musical, but it’s not like I was entirely looking forward to Into the Woods anyway. The trailer, which was pretty much a roll call of the stars, didn’t do much to sell the film to me, and musical composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s works are rather difficult to translate to film (I did, however, love his last major film adaptation, Sweeney Todd, and of course, there’s West Side Story).

Save the final 20-25 minutes, though, this movie is fun. The final act is where things begin to get a little exhausting and some tighter editing in that portion could’ve made this a better film. I understand the need for what feels like an additional ending. Into the Woods is an alternative ribbing of the Grimm fairy tales which gives us satirical depictions of the characters and the answer to what may happen after happily ever after. But the energy that’s so lively during the first 3/4 of the film starts to die down as the film dawdles its way toward the ending, only to be saved by another rousing musical number.

Fans of the Broadway musical may be disappointed by the Disney-fied toning down of the source material’s racier elements, but I, having not seen the stage version, didn’t mind or even care, and as a film it’s well done. Sure, there’s a bit of a smaller scale, claustrophobic feel to what you’d expect to be more like an expansive fairytale setting. It’s pretty close to watching a film version of a stage play, but since it’s a musical you can kinda overlook that.

I’m not a fan of Rob Marshall’s work. Chicago, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was fine but not a movie worthy of Best Picture, Memoirs of a Geisha was disappointing, Nine managed to accomplish the unthinkable by featuring the only unremarkable performance from Daniel Day-Lewis I’ve ever seen, and although I enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Marshall’s On Stranger Tides was evidence enough to why the series should’ve ended at three. That said, I’ll give the man his due and that’s he knows the musical genre, having worked in the field long before his Oscar winning film (coincidentally, going back to Annie, he directed the TV version starring Kathy Bates and Alan Cumming). Regardless of whether I think the overall film’s good or not, from a purely competent filmmaking standpoint, Marshall knows what ingredients are needed to make a musical work.

The no-brainer tricky part of any musical, and this is one of the big reasons why Annie failed, is the music, which needs more than just the music but the stage presence as well. Sondheim’s music is no breeze to get through; both musically and lyrically (some of his songs are the musical equivalent of trying to get through REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”), his songs are quite difficult to pull off. Marshall knows how to stage a song number, though, and the cast hit each of them out of the park, opening things up with an fantastic performance of the title song.

Everyone involved onscreen are game for this project, starting with two terrific performances from James Corden and Emily Blunt as the central figures of the story. Although Blunt’s character has a late story thread that feels forced and wedged in just to let Sondheim have his cake and eat it too with the subversive nature of the film (still, nothing too objectionable for your kids), Blunt has such a lovely screen presence and she and Corden (a fun highlight earlier this summer in Begin Again) are naturals together.

Meryl Streep, the other central figure, hams it up big time, but dials it down enough at times to balance the role out. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s Award worthy as all the nominations made so far seem to believe, but it’s still a fun, showy performance in a film that definitely allows her enough range to go big or go home.

Anna Kendrick wouldn’t have been my first or even top ten choice for Cinderella, and I’ll admit it takes a while for me to buy her in that role. To her credit, though, she’s got pipes. Chris Pine, one of – I mean, the only one from Horrible Bosses 2 that didn’t feel like a complete waste of time, provides a hilarious take on Prince Charming, and shares alongside Billy Magnussen (as Rapunzel’s prince) by far the funniest musical performance in the film, which pokes fun at the princes’ superficial personalities (Pine also channels his inner William Shatner more than he did in either of his turns as Capt. Kirk in the last two Star Trek films combined). In smaller roles, Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski are welcome sights as Jack’s mother and Cinderella’s stepmother, respectively, the latter getting a delightfully twisted version of the stepsisters trying on Cinderella’s slipper.

To those worried that Johnny Depp was just popping in more eyeliner for another goofy character, worry not. He’s only onscreen for about 5-8 minutes. It’s not a bad performance, but most everyone’s become jaded to the “What crazy role’s he gonna do now?” schtick he’s been doing, so restricting his time onscreen allows him to not wear out the character’s welcome.

Into the Woods drags on longer than it needs to with its unevenly paced third, or should I say fourth, act. Yet the catchy musical numbers, the talented cast belting them out and the first-rate costume and production design keep things lively and entertaining more often than not. While this certainly isn’t at the level of The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, or The Sound of Music, there’s still enough family-friendly fun here to provide a good time for everyone.

I give Into the Woods a B (★★★).

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