- by Jeff Beck
Into the Woods: A Faithful Adaptation of Sondheim's Classic
When Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods” premiered on Broadway in 1987, it became a huge hit, earning multiple Tony nominations (even winning a few despite being up against Webber’s masterpiece “The Phantom of the Opera”). Ever since, it had been a battle to bring the musical to the screen, with several casts being considered in the process, but finally after 27 years all the pieces have come together to make the fans’ dream come true. But has the result been worth the nearly three-decade wait that some have been enduring?
The musical combines multiple fairy tales into one story, primarily focusing on a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who have been cursed by a witch (Meryl Streep). The curse has caused them not to be able to have a child, but the Witch gives them a chance to reverse it by collecting four different objects: a blood-red cape, a golden shoe, corn-colored hair, and a milk-white cow. Here’s where the other fairy tales come into play. We also meet Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who is on her way to her grandmother’s house, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who has been charged by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell their cow, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who dreams of going to the King’s festival to meet a prince (Chris Pine), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), a beautiful maiden with incredibly long hair who has been kept in a tower by the Witch for several years. All of these characters and stories begin to clash as they find themselves going… into the woods.
It was only a little over two years ago that I finally saw Sondheim’s musical after having it recommended to me. Alas, it wasn’t a live production, but rather a recording of a performance that starred Bernadette Peters as the Witch. I had enjoyed it for the most part, finding the first act to be really entertaining as the various characters and stories collided, but when it came to the second act, the musical became very “ho-hum,” with the story becoming less engaging than it had been. However, I had liked it overall, despite none of the musical numbers being particularly catchy.
In a rather faithful adaptation of the stage show, the film has left me with very much the same feeling. The first act bristles with energy as the Baker and his wife struggle to collect the various items, running into other characters on their own quests along the way, but once more, when that second act hits, it feels as though the film goes into a kind of hibernation. I believe the main problem with this act has always been that it feels entirely unnecessary, especially since everything (including the main story), gets wrapped up at the end of Act One, making the considerably less-interesting second act, which deals with a giant terrorizing the kingdom, feel like a needless continuation that drags the show on. That being said, I suppose you can’t blame
Sondheim for wanting to make a musical that lasted longer than 75 minutes.
Luckily, much like the stage show, it still manages to rise above this issue thanks to the power of its incredible ensemble and beautiful music. This cast, which includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, and even Johnny Depp in a short role as the Wolf, is pitch-perfect, delivering amazing renditions of the songs. This, coupled with outstanding direction from Rob Marshall (director of the magnificent “Chicago” adaptation from 2002), makes for a delightful experience, one that surprisingly gives you all of the darkly-humorous moments from the original show (surprising because you probably wouldn’t expect to hear about eyes being pecked out and parts of feet being cut off in a Disney film). Fans are sure to be pleased by what Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine (writer of the original musical’s book) have done here. If anything, my similar reaction to the musical and the film just goes to show how great a job they’ve done in bringing it from the stage to the screen, and for some, that will make all the difference in the world. 3/4 stars.
Starts everywhere Christmas Day.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.