Based loosely on the Grimm Brothers fairy tales and first introduced on the Broadway stage now Into the Woods comes to the big screen. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha), who has plenty of experience transferring Broadway musicals from the stage to the screen, it meshes the tales of Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella together with that of a witch and a childless couple. Mixed together and presented mostly in song it is a romping good time.
A Baker (James Corden – Begin Again, The History Boys) and his Wife (Emily Blunt – The Adjustment Bureau, The Five-Year Engagement) live a basic but happy life. The only thing they are missing is a child. The Baker’s Wife is barren and can’t have children. Hope springs eternal for the young couple when the evil Witch (Meryl Streep – The Devil Wears Prada, Doubt) offers them the chance to have a child. To lift the curse she placed upon the Baker’s father (Simon Russell Beale – My Week With Marilyn, The Deep Blue Sea) and his entire family the Baker has to bring the Witch several magical items.
These four items (a white horse, blonde hair, a golden shoe, and a red cape) have to be brought to the Witch before the second midnight strikes so she can use them to lift the curse and restore her youth. While looking for the items the Baker and his Wife have to go into the Enchanted Forest and they are brought into contact with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone – Les Misérables – 2012), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick – Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford – first film), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy – from television’s The Bold and the Beautiful).
As a fan of musical theatre and of Stephen Sondheim I was looking forward with a little trepidation to this big screen adaptation of Into the Woods. My worries are warranted due to the many failed attempts to bring musicals to screen. Could these actors sing? Would the fantasy world created be too over the top? Despite my hesitation I found myself almost immediately immersed into the wild, crazy and musical world created by Rob Marshall and his talented ensemble cast.
The sets, costumes and CGI (mostly for the last) are good, but really what carries the film is the strength of the cast. Besides the leads like Streep, Blunt, Corden, and Kendrick you also get great actors in supporting roles like Johnny Depp as the Wolf, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s mean stepmother, Tracy Ullman as Jack’s mother, and the surprising Chris Pine as Prince Charming. They all bring something to their characters and make them memorable despite the fact that they are only in the film for a few scenes.
As for the leads they are all solid with a few surprises. Unlike her turn in Mama Mia! Meryl Streep is in her element in this musical. Her singing style fits the character and they have given her something which requires plenty of scenery chewing which she does better than anyone. James Corden, who proved he could sing on the London stage with his hit one-man show One Man, Two Guvnors, goes a long way towards really making a splash outside of the U.K. We all knew that Emily Blunt could act the question was could she sing? She demonstrates that the breadth of her talent (drama, action, comedy, romance, period drama, and now musical) knows no boundaries. We knew after the surprise hit Pitch Perfect that Anna Kendrick could sing and now we know that she can also fulfill the demands of a character that asks several emotional levels from her bringing to screen a Cinderella who is silly, uncertain, hopeful, a schemer, and not willing to settle for a man who is not truly in love with her despite the fact that he is a prince. Finally, the two biggest surprises were the young Daniel Huttlestone and Chris Pine. Huttlestone is a professional with his surprisingly strong and able to convey emotion voice. Chris Pine can sing? The answer is yes and his co-lead in the hysterical “Agony” is one of the high points of the film.
The cast is greatly helped by the clever, funny and moving songs of the master, Stephen Sondheim. Several of his songs in the musical sound harmless and then upon a closer listen you realize they are filled with witty adult oriented moments and double entendres. Sondheim fans will recognize the lyrical thickness he favours in many songs. His songs have a rhythm that is distinctly his own. The orchestration surrounding Sondheim’s lyrics is also wonderful and reaches a peak in the snippet from the song “No More”. Like any good musical the songs tell the tale and tell it well.
Another strong point is the emotionality involved. You feel a on the edge of your seat tension for several characters. For Jack, the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Cinderella you want their lives to improve and see the danger in front of them. For the Baker and his Wife your heart soars and falls for them in their fight to have a child. Completely understand as the unsatisfied Baker’s Wife wrestles with temptation. Shed a tear as the Baker deals with loss and heredity. Despite all the camp surrounding it the emotions produced feel genuine.
Despite the fact that this is a Disney film all the dark themes and adult subjects remain. Which is a good thing because they make up an important part of the story. Nor do they dumb down the more adult themes in order to cater to young viewers. Which ends up only aggravating the older “kids” in the audience. They remained true to the dark nature of Maleficent earlier this year and continue the winning streak with Into the Woods. Disney, in seeing that allowing some dark into their films makes the light parts shine brighter, is proving that it is not a film company just for young people.