Way back before Disney rejuvenated itself by making animated musicals based on fairy tales sprinkled with witty songs, adult concerns, and a wisecracking modern attitude, Stephen Sondheim beat the studio to that territory with his 1988 Broadway musical Into the Woods. Now, after repeated failed Hollywood attempts to film the Tony-winning show, it’s Disney that has finally brought the big-screen adaptation to our theaters, and while it may not have the uplift of some of the studio’s very best stuff, it is quite pleasing to the ears.
The story centers on a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who are left unable to have children after a hideous old witch (Meryl Streep) curses them. She offers to lift the curse if they can bring her four items — Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, Cinderella’s slipper, Rapunzel’s hair, and the cow that Jack trades for magic beans — before the full moon rises in three nights. To fulfill their mission, the couple ventures into the enchanted forest, where all of the other characters just happen to be.
Director Rob Marshall did well creating a hermetic, stylized, theatrical environment for his film adaptation of Chicago, but this material calls for something different. Despite recruiting much of the production team from the last Sondheim movie, Sweeney Todd, he can’t make the forest into the place of wonder and menace that it should be. The magic too often eludes him in small moments and big ones, like when the witch transforms into her beautiful younger self or a giant appears. A choreographer by training, he also seems uneasy with a musical that doesn’t afford many opportunities for dance. The staging of the duet “It Takes Two” just sits there, and the impact of the celebrated “Children Will Listen” is diluted by his decision to have it sung by an offscreen witch while the camera cranes into the sky.
Fortunately, neither these shortcomings, nor the cuts to the score, are enough to screw up this musical masterpiece. (As a Sondheim fan, I’m telling my brethren and sistren not to fear, the play’s violence is softened but not enough to fundamentally change the story.) The lengthy prologue features a large number of characters in different places singing different melodies at the same time, and Marshall handles it with dexterity. He also goes deliriously over the top with his manlier-than-thou staging of the princes’ duet “Agony,” with Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen leaping by a waterfall and ripping open their shirts for no reason.
Sondheim’s verbal pyrotechnics and musical complexity make this an unforgiving show for inadequate performers, so it’s good that the singing actors here come through so splendidly. Though Lilla Crawford might be a bit shallow in her interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, the rest of the cast is hard to fault, especially when even small roles are played by the likes of Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s stepmother) and Tracey Ullman (Jack’s mother). With no musical experience, Blunt turns out to be a fine singer, with her sturdy, reedy low mezzo shining in “Moments in the Woods.” Daniel Huttlestone (the boy from Les Misérables) plays Jack and delivers a thrilling rendition of “Giants in the Sky.” As the wolf, Johnny Depp brings a nasty, bullying edge to his lone number “Hello, Little Girl,” which is made pervier because it’s sung to a Red Riding Hood who’s actually played by a preteen girl. Corden (last seen in Begin Again) doesn’t match his castmates vocally, but he does especially well by the later scenes when the baker is plunged into anguish.
Rooting around in the low end of her singing range, Streep brings gratifying power to blockbuster songs like “Last Midnight” and flashes aching vulnerability in the witch’s plea to Rapunzel, “Stay With Me.” Even she, though, is outdone in the singing department by Anna Kendrick as a properly flaky Cinderella, hitting her high notes cleanly and giving a splashy account of “On the Steps of the Palace” but also turning in a crushing version of the consoling ballad “No One Is Alone.”
Marshall bills these actors individually in the closing credits, as he does in all his movies — he’s a theater guy, and it’s his way of giving his actors a curtain call. Here, though, it seems he owes his cast more than usual, since they’re the ones who tease out the yearning emotions behind the characters’ songs of innocence and experience and make Into the Woods a worthy film version of the great musical that it springs from.
Into the Woods
Starring James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, and Meryl Streep. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by James Lapine, based on Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s musical. Rated PG.