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.
These primary characters are orbited by Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), embarking on one of her regular visits to Grandma’s house; Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), trapped in her high tower; and obvious villains such as Red’s pursuing Wolf (Johnny Depp) and Cinderella’s haughty stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters, Florinda (Tammy Blanchard) and Lucinda (Lucy Punch).
But the action is driven by the surrounding woods’ fearsome witch (Meryl Streep), who blasts into the Baker’s home with a show-stopping entrance that literally takes our breath away (not to mention frightening the wits out of the Baker and his wife). Their inability to start a family derives from a spell, the witch informs them: a curse that she’s willing to lift if they bring her four items for a magic potion.
As specified in song, those items are “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.” Which we recognize will bring the Baker and his wife into direct contact with the various other characters in this droll roundelay.
The Sondheim/Lapine play is divided into two quite distinct acts, and the first half of this film closely follows that template: no surprise, since Lapine delivered the screenplay. On the other hand, Lapine’s direct involvement becomes puzzling once we move into Marshall’s far less satisfying handling of Act 2. This film departs from the play in several key respects, and although matters conclude more or less the same, getting there isn’t nearly as much fun.
I’ve often complained that many musicals front-load their best material, and then suffer noticeably during far weaker second acts. That’s very much a problem with this big-screen adaptation of Into the Woods, in great part because the saga begins to feel rushed and clumsy, the songs nowhere near as vibrant or entertaining.
Granted, to a degree that’s an intentional shift in tone that was very much Sondheim and Lapine’s original design: Things get grim (or truly Grimm) in the second half, and the action isn’t nearly as fun or frothy. But that doesn’t excuse the way some characters get neglected, most noticeably Rapunzel and her prince (Billy Magnussen). They just sorta vanish, as if unexpectedly yanked offstage.
That’s a shame for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the show-stopping duet between Magnussen and Chris Pine, the latter popping up as the Prince who seeks the identity of the young woman who left a certain slipper behind. The princes’ duet, “Agony,” is a hilarious bit of one-upsmanship between these two characters, as each professes the greater frustrations involved with their respective romances, complete with chest-baring laments choreographed atop a woodland waterfall.
Pine, it must be mentioned, is as deliciously dynamic here — in song, dance and romance-novel archetype — as he was in the otherwise unremarkable Horrible Bosses 2.
Kendrick also handles herself well, in music and performance, as the brow-beaten scullery maid given an unexpected opportunity to trade up. She’s wan and wistful as needed, then plucky and determined: definitely a heroine worthy of our admiration.
Crawford makes an appropriate bratty Red Riding Hood, and the young actress also deserves credit for her deft handling of Sondheim’s tongue-twisting lyrics. The same can be said of Corden, making the most of a role that also showcases his singing chops (and finally might bring him some well-deserved attention on these shores, since his charming 2013 British film, One Chance, continues to elude U.S. release).
But nobody holds a candle to Streep, who literally blows everybody else off the screen ... in part because her character has a habit of making particularly explosive entrances and exits. She snarls her way through several mock-sinister songs, chewing up the scenery and taking no prisoners. Yet in an eyeblink the witch turns crafty and quiet, Streep delighting us with marvelously subtle expressions and double-takes.
It’s a bravura performance in every respect, and she owns this film.
The same cannot be said of Blunt, who never quite gets a handle on her reading of the Baker’s wife. We’re never sure whether this character is truly sympathetic, and deserving of happiness, or grasping to a degree not unlike Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters. On top of which, Blunt lacks the vocal authority necessary for her role; she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable while singing.
Depp is little more than stunt casting, although he does make an appropriately wily Wolf. Additional stunt casting comes from Tracy Ullman’s appearance as Jack’s mother — she really doesn’t bring anything to the party — and Annette Crosbie’s similarly under-scripted presence as Red’s grannie.
Harry Potter fans also might get a chuckle out of Frances de la Tour’s appearance as the giant’s wife, given that she portrayed the similarly huge Madame Maxime in that series.
This film’s many delightful moments aside, the sum ultimately is less than its various parts. I also can’t help feeling that far too many compromises were made — in terms of the original play’s edge and decidedly adult tone — en route to securing the family-friendly PG rating that Disney obviously demanded. These Woods are lamentably bowdlerized: a process clearly undertaken with Sondheim and Lapine’s approval ... and more’s the pity.
Ah, well. The original play will occupy stages forever, so we’ll have plenty of chances to see this “Once upon a time” done properly.