Into the Woods

I shudder to think how many oblivious parents took their kids to see Into the Woods over the holidays, only to realize after a few minutes that this wasn’t the fairy tale flick they thought it’d be. But wait, they’d protest– it has Cinderella and Red Riding Hood and Jack (of Beanstalk fame)! And it’s from Disney! And there’s singing!

Yes, but this is from the (brilliant) mind of Stephen Sondheim, folks. There’s not many people (none, in fact) better than him at creating magical musical theater, but he’s not exactly kid-friendly. Ever heard of Sweeney Todd (the Demon Barber of Fleet Street)? And remember lyrics like, “When you’re a Jet / you’re a Jet all the way / from your first cigarette / to your last dyin’ day”?

Of course, I would imagine there were also plenty of Sondheim fans (and/or Broadway fans in general) who knew exactly what they were in store for… and they got a nice holiday treat in the bargain. The process of turning the 1987 Tony Award-winning musical (Best Score, Best Book, Best Actress) into a movie began in the early 1990s. It took more than twenty years, but it was worth the wait.

By and large, the film stays true to the musical (though I imagine purists will politely disagree). It blends a gaggle of fairy tales into one big twisted story about love, responsibility, and family. The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are trying to undo a curse the Witch (Meryl Streep) placed on them, leaving them childless. To do so, they have to collect a red cloak, golden slipper, yellow hair, and a white cow… a list that, of course, leads them to interact with Red Riding Hood, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel, and Jack.

James Lapine, who wrote the book of the original musical tackled the screenplay duties here, and Sondheim himself approved the Disney-fication of the more lascivious and/or dark plot points (Rapunzel survives! The Narrator never really happens, so he doesn’t die, either! The Wolf tones down his “Hello, little girl”-ness!). And all hail the decision to include almost all of the original musical numbers (the glaring exception is the show-stopping “No More”, which is missed); I’ll conservatively estimate that you’ll be singing “Into the woods to grandmother’s house!” for a good three or four weeks afterward.

If there’s one complaint, it’s that the transition from stage to screen doesn’t entirely work. But it’s not really the fault of director Rob Marshall (Chicago). He does a fine job turning Into the Woods into a lavish and lush film; I’m just not completely sold that’s what it should have been. Part of the joy of the stage production is bouncing between all the various characters and their stories as they share the same stage. Here, though (particularly in the opening “I Wish/Into the Woods” prologue), we instead get an almost whiplash-inducing series of cut shots and jumps that do impact the movie’s flow and pace considerably.

For the most part, though (and especially once it gets going), Into the Woods is a rousing success. The cast, particularly Streep, Blunt, Kendrick, and Corden… and Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood… and Johnny Depp in his cameo as The Wolf… and the scene-stealing Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince… well, heck, all of the cast is about as good as you could ask for; there isn’t a single weak link along the way.

It may not be for the faint of heart (or, more accurately, the young of age), but Into the Woods is a fantastical way to close out the holiday season– a dark and twisted tale full of infectious songs, fun characters, and did I mention infectious songs?

“Into the woods to grandmother’s house!”

4.5/5 stars