In the generation since Into the Woods opened on Broadway, the entertainment world has recycled a forest’s worth of fairy tale-steeped mythology for mass consumption. For years, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 fairy tale mashup, written with librettist James Lapine, has hacked its way through the thicket of Hollywood development. And the movie now before us? Here’s a relief: It’s good.
It’s also a little harried. The stage version always was heavily plotted verging on chaos, and director Rob Marshall tends to push the camera too close to the bustle. But it works. It’s full of wit and feeling, guided by strong performers clearly devoted to the material and to Sondheim’s sparkling craftsmanship.
In creating the stage show, Lapine and Sondheim combined several fairy tales, particularly those of the Brothers Grimm. To the tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, they added new characters, chief among them a baker (James Corden in the film, terrific) and his wife (Emily Blunt, also terrific). Their desire to have a child has been forestalled by a curse laid on them by the witch next door (Meryl Streep).
Streep kills it and has serious fun with Sondheim’s intricate patter songs. To undo the curse, baker and wife venture into the woods in search of four objects: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. Anna Kendrick shines as a conflicted Cinderella; Chris Pine has the great fortune to sing (with fellow prince, played by Billy Magnussen) the hilariously egocentric duet “Agony.” Daniel Huttlestone portrays the giant-slaying Jack, with Tracey Ullman as his testy, careworn mother. Christine Baranski goes to town and back again as Cinderella’s stepmother. It’s a large ensemble, constantly in motion.
Everyone’s wishes come true in Into the Woods, but the price is steep. Jack slays the giant, but the giant’s wife craves revenge. Cinderella gets her prince, but the prince is a charming cad and at one point dallies with the baker’s wife. (“This is ridiculous/What am I doing here/I’m in the wrong story!” she talk-sings in romantic dismay.) Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) runs afoul of the vaguely lascivious Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp, outfitted like a zoot-suited menace), and after being eaten and then rescued, she sings “I Know Things Now,” in which Sondheim equates Red’s ordeal with an uneasy awakening leaving her both “excited” and “scared.”
Into the Woods is a diptych. Act 1 ends with happily ever after but a portent of doom. Act 2 is laden with consequences, the deaths of key characters and, in the end, an acknowledgment that community responsibility must be heeded, and everyone must share in the joy and the hard work of living.
I wish the film were 10 or 15 minutes longer; as is, it’s a tightly packed 124 minutes, but there’s some connective tissue missing between the material’s violent mood swings. Marshall’s camera eye is more functional than inspired, and too often he contents himself with scrambling after whoever’s singing while skipping or running or arguing. He’s not one for careful composition. Sondheim has said the Sondheim show this most closely resembles is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with its multiple storylines crisscrossing and converging just so. But with Into the Woods it’s not merely comedy tonight; it’s comedy tonight plus tragedy tomorrow. The Sondheim melodies are meant to be skittish, the way Carl Stalling’s music for the old Warner Brothers cartoons kept changing direction, delightfully. And then, just when the survivors of the story need it most, along come the songs “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen” to reassure the frayed nerves of both the storybook legends and the paying customers.
Into the Woods was a natural for the movies, with its transformation scenes, its jump-cut-friendly storytelling, hopping from one set of characters to another and back again. The movie works best whenever Corden and Blunt, performers of nearly limitless appeal and sweet-natured vulnerability, take the story back from their cohorts, though Kendrick is no less beguiling. I wish I could say Marshall is a savior of the screen musical, but in truth, though he scored with Chicago, his film version of Nine wasn’t much better than his nonmusicals Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Into the Woods brightens the record.
Into the Woods (PG): ★★★✩✩