3.5 stars. Rated PG, for thematic elements, fantasy peril and some suggestive material
By Derrick Bang
I never cease being delighted by Stephen Sondheim’s wordcraft wizardry.
His music and lyrics are as ferociously clever as anything concocted by Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter, and as sharply sardonic as the best of mathematician-turned-satirical-tunesmith Tom Lehrer.
Almost three decades have passed since Sondheim and collaborator James Lapine unleashed Into the Woods, a frothy, thoroughly enchanting what-if musical that takes an unexpectedly mature approach to several classic Grimm fairy tales. Mostly, Sondheim and Lapine imagine what happened next, following the obligatory “happily ever after” fade-out that concludes such stories.
Nothing good, as it turns out.
Broadway classics don’t always transition well to the big screen, in great part because we lose the intimacy that comes from being in a theater with the actors who can bring fire and passion even to material this whimsical. No doubt many have contemplated this particular challenge, since Into the Woods debuted in 1987, but Rob Marshall eventually won the battle.
Certainly he seems a worthy choice, having watched his cinematic adaptation of Chicago take six of its 13 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
His handling of Into the Woods is unlikely to garner such stellar praise, but not for lack of quality; this simply isn’t as visually dynamic a production, its delights limited chiefly to the way in which the cast brings fresh brio to Sondheim’s lyrics and patter-songs. Production designer Dennis Gassner spends a lot of time with various forest settings that look rather similar; the scenery magic derives more from sfx supervisor Matt Johnson’s various touches, most notably the giant beanstalk that sprouts next to a certain home.
That said, there’s no denying the spectacular splash with which this film opens, cross-cutting between the various sets of characters within the intermingled saga to follow, their desires explicated in the lengthy “Prologue,” the first of Sondheim’s many ingenious songs. Marshall and editor Wyatt Smith have a field day with this stylish production number, a bravura 10 minutes that sets a most impressive stage.
The story is fueled by seemingly reasonable but ultimately ill-advised wishes. In short order, we meet Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes to attend the palace festival; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), a naïve but kind-hearted boy who wishes that his cow, Milky White, didn’t have to be sold; and the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who wish they could become parents.