A joyful musical journey
“Into the Woods” is a terrific film adaptation of the popular stage production and a textbook example of how to trim a musical in all the right places and not only improve the product but make a movie that will delight fans of both mediums. Yes, purists will decry some of the songs and themes that were excised but legendary composer Stephen Sondheim himself and original book author James Lapine either approved or re-wrote the changes that Disney Studios’ wanted and the (outwardly at least) friendly collaboration, was, more importantly artistically successful.
Much of the credit of the of “Into the Woods,” sprightly, even playful tone goes to director Rob Marshall who turned much of the common ore of the shallow-plotted “Chicago” into Oscar gold, then stumbled painfully with “Nine.” The set designs are appropriately foreboding and the dark woods as twisty as the take on the Brothers Grimm fairy tales that give the beloved characters a wonderful, witty self-awareness that is part wordy cautionary tale and part demented parody.
The performances have nary a dud and concerns about Meryl Streep’s casting as the Witch (odd considering her immeasurable talent and awards but her turn in “Mamma Mia” still confounds, it was likely just miscasting) are without merit. In fact, the pre-recorded singing is superb featuring Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), James Corden (Baker and Narrator), Emily Blunt (Baker’s wife), Daniel Huttlestone—so good as Gavroche in “Les Miserables” (Jack) Tracy Ullman (Jack’s Mom), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel) and Lilla Crawford sounding very “Annie” –ish, where she made her stage debut (Little Red Riding Hood) and Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s Stepmom) all bringing their Broadway experience and legit singing to the proceedings. Two other nice surprises include Chris Pine’s hilariously pompous turn opposite Billy Magnussen as the two preening princes in the production’s funniest song “Agony.” Johnny Depp’s wily if conventional performance as the Wolf is properly muted amounting to a cameo.
The musical’s redundant reprises and occasionally annoying melodies , (though to be truthful you will be still humming the title tune long after the credits roll) especially in the second act, are trimmed considerably while still allowing the show’s best songs “Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen” to claim their emotional resonance.
The great thing about “Into the Woods” is that it by no means makes the musical on which it is based unnecessary–the darker themes explored in the script coupled with the energy of live performance demand a place on stage. But Disney has taken great care to make a movie musical that honors the source material and yet offers what for many will be their first journey into Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fractured forest and what a joyful journey it is.
Rated PG (for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material)