Into the Woods (2014)
124 min., rated PG.
Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods" hit the stage on Broadway in 1987 and became an evergreen musical mainstay. It was only a matter of time, following 2007's bravura, Tim Burton-directed Grand Guignol symphony "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and 2012's ginormous, stirring "Les Misérables," before it would, too, make a transition to the big screen and become a Walt Disney holiday-released event. Directed by Tony Award-winning Rob Marshall (2002's "Chicago" and 2009's "Nine") and written for the screen by James Lapine, this screen adaptation is vibrantly staged, musically ebullient, and wonderfully subversive, preserving the show's theatricality without feeling overly stagey or manic and having just enough intimacy for the camera. Some movie musicals prove that musical fans should be more careful what they wish for, but "Into the Woods" should give all audiences their happily ever after.
Incorporating classic fairy tales "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Rapunzel," and "Cinderella," the film interweaves all of its storybook characters into one darkly comic, always-entertaining tale. Living in their cozy little cottage, the childless Baker (James Corden) and the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt) haven't been able to conceive a child, due to a curse placed on the Baker's father by the old, ugly Witch living next door (Meryl Streep), rendering the family tree barren. If they go to the woods and acquire four objects—"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"—before midnight in three days' time, the curse will be reversed and the couple will be able to bear a child. Meanwhile, sparky Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is making her journey into the woods to her grandmother's house not before stopping for a basket full of bread; beautiful maiden Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) spends her life in a tower in the woods after being put there by The Witch, her supposed mother; under the orders of his mother (Tracey Ullman), young farmboy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) takes their cow, Milky White, to the town market and ends up trading the Baker for magic beans; and poor Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes against the command of her wicked Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and attends the festival at the kingdom to see the prince (Chris Pine) and ends up making a mad dash, leaving her golden slipper behind. The Baker and his wife will eventually finish their scavenger hunt, but the woods still throw a wrench into their plans.
Right off the top, "Into the Woods" begins its narration and segues into its first glorious, hummable, show-stopping number, "Into the Woods," introducing characters who each wish for a better life. Each performer nimbly handles Sondheim's quick-witted, tongue-twisty lyrics, particularly the climax's "Your Fault." As an ensemble piece, no one sinks the ship, and compared to the recent reincarnation of "Annie," everyone has had much more vocal training. Meryl Streep is having a ball as The Witch and she seems to be more in charge of the music than she was in "Mamma Mia." Though The Witch is the catalyst for everything unraveling, Streep—the queen thespian of versatility that she is—turns the character into much more than just a spell-casting villain; as a mother who loves her daughter so much that she has kept her hidden from the world in a tower, she sells both the petty witchiness and an underlying vulnerability. Her belting of emotion is entirely palpable in "Stay With Me," her sorrowful plea to Rapunzel. She's also just plain fun to watch, and her third-act transition will remind Streep completists a bit of "Death Becomes Her." James Corden (2014's "Begin Again") and Emily Blunt are charming and empathetic as The Baker and The Baker's Wife who, respectively, wants a child and isn't so sure. Anna Kendrick is cute as ever as Cinderella and can carry a tune as we've seen early on in her career in 2003's "Camp" and then 2013's "Pitch Perfect," but she's hemmed in by the writing a bit. A swoon-worthy Chris Pine hammily and cheekily runs with the role of Prince Charming with a self-deprecating charisma and shows a different side of himself. The fun he's obviously having is so infectious, especially during a preening, cackling-inducing duet and dance-off of "Agony" on the top of a waterfall with his brother, played by a game Billy Magnussen (2012's "Damsels in Distress").
Making her feature film debut with aplomb, Broadway performer Lilla Crawford is the purest delight as the feisty Red Riding Hood. She played Annie in the 2012 stage revival, and her command on the stage translates beautifully to the screen. Johnny Depp's participation in the plot is minimal as the leering Wolf in a zoot suit and whiskers, but he sells the creepily perverse subtext of "Hello Little Girl" with relish when preying upon Red Riding Hood and even luring her with candy in his coat. Daniel Huttlestone's (2012's "Les Misérables") plucky Jack endears, and he nails "Giants in the Sky," a description of his journey up the beanstalk. Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, and Lucy Punch aren't given a lot to do as Cinderella's cruel Stepmother and Stepsisters, but they're an over-the-top hoot just the same. TV actress Mackenzie Mauzy looks the part of sheltered Rapunzel, but she's mostly a plot construct to move the narrative along. Also, Tracey Ullman is amusing but largely underused as Jack's exasperated mom.
The play is the play, and the movie is the movie. It is sometimes to be expected for a stage play taken to the screen to be cursed with choppiness, the seams showing in motion picture form. In the case of this one, no actual time is spent between Cinderella and Prince Charming at the festival, perhaps for pacing, and same goes for Rapunzel and her prince. And, when a couple of characters have abrupt exits, both of their deaths just have to be accepted without being palpably felt. Despite such slivers of unevenness in James Lapine's script, director Rob Marshall makes so many inventive choices—we see inside the wolf's belly, reminding of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and Cinderella has an amusing freeze-frame aside—and shot on soundstages and a tactile forest in Surrey, England, to bring an organic storybook world to the screen. The viewer will struggle to keep their drool in, thanks to the mouth-watering sights of Dion Beebe's cinematography, Dennis Gassner's production design, Colleen Atwood's costume design, Anna Pinnock's set decoration, and the art direction.
Before a lady giant (Frances de la Tour) even climbs down the beanstalk and enters the picture, "Into the Woods" has already run out of steam from all of the storytelling convolutions and character collisions, but that never makes it any less fun or lively to watch. To focus too much on the misgivings of the narrative would be like not seeing the wood for the trees. It would be hard to tell which songs were cut or reworked, but theater brats should calm down because there are so many to choose from. Even being under the family-friendly Disney umbrella, this PG-rated storybook mash-up thankfully doesn't dilute Sondheim's arch spark of spontaneity or compromise too many of the grimmer, more adult story details (i.e. loss, an affair, the stepmother slicing off her daughter's heel and toe to fit into the golden slipper). For a holiday offering, "Into the Woods" is an alive, swirling, rapturously magical treat.
Grade: B +