Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical “Into the Woods” is a brilliant contemporary reexamination of the timeless fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Rob Marshall’s cinematic adaptation of the stage musical is not a masterpiece, but it is not the disaster many LGBT fans feared. This charming and moving film captures the essence of the story and features many fine performances.
Sondheim (who is openly gay) and collaborator James Lapine anchor their story in a new tale. A childless Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) have been put under a curse by “the Witch next door” (Meryl Streep). To lift the curse and have their child, they must go to the woods and find four objects: the cow as white as milk (Milky White, owned by Jack of beanstalk fame), the cape as red as blood (belonging to Little Red Riding Hood), the slipper as pure as gold (from Cinderella) and the hair as yellow as corn (Rapunzel).
Act one focuses on the choices the characters make as they get their wishes. Act two focuses on the consequences of those decisions and the tone darkens as a vengeful Giant stomps through the kingdom.
Much of the beloved material arrives onscreen intact (Lapine is given screenplay credit and Sondheim was involved in the production). There are, of course, some cuts and changes. Cinderella’s Father disappears, as does the Narrator/Mysterious Man. (The Baker narrates the film, which is a very nice touch.) The act one finale (“Ever After”) and the act two prologue (“So Happy/Into the Woods Reprise”) are cut. The Giant’s attack now comes rather abruptly during the wedding of Cinderella and her Prince (which creates some clunky narrative and emotional gaps).
The act two finale is not filmed, but Marshall finds a clever way to include the glorious final chorale (“Children Will Listen”). A few numbers of varying importance are cut (“Our Little World,” the reprise of “Agony” and “No More”). These cuts make for more efficient cinematic storytelling, but some of the minor characters (especially Cinderella’s step-family) are reduced to walk-ons. The Witch’s stirring “Lament” remains, but with a change in Rapunzel’s fate (no spoilers here), the number is sadly diluted.
The cuts also dilute the thematic material. The harsher messages about personal growth and responsibility (“into the woods you’ve got to grope”) are displaced by the more sentimental (yet still powerful) themes of “No One Is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.”
Marshall’s direction is uneven. Throughout, the color palate is muted and muddy. Some of the numbers (notably “It Takes Two” and the final attack on the Giant) are awkward and hard to follow. Overall, however, his work is more controlled than in his previous musical adaptations (“Chicago” and “Nine”). His filming of the difficult prologue (17 minutes of screen time) is masterful, with clear cuts, strong pacing, perfect focus and appealing visuals. “Agony,” the hilarious duet between the two Princes, and Cinderella’s big moment (“On the Steps of the Palace”) are imaginatively staged and beautifully filmed.
What makes this movie soar are the uniformly excellent performances. Meryl Streep is simply amazing as the Witch. She brings great depth to this complex character. Anna Kendrick shines as Cinderella, bringing a keen intelligence, sharp sense of humor, deep compassion and silvery voice to the role. Corden and the amazingly versatile Blunt are wonderful as the Baker and his Wife. There are also lively performances from Lilla Crawford (Red), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack) and Tracy Ullman (Jack’s Mother), among others.
And Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen give breakthrough performances as the Princes (for Cinderella and Rapunzel respectively). Pine, best known for his action roles, proves that he has great comic timing and a strong singing voice. The look of enchantment on his face as he slides the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot will set hearts aflutter, and the memory of that moment brings an unexpected poignancy to their final scene together. With a magnetic screen presence, Magnussen is also delightful and makes the most out of a small role.