If you aren’t familiar with Stephen Sondheim, then be forewarned. His “Into the Woods” does concern Cinderella and Rapunzel and they do find their princes, but happily-ever-after comes halfway through and by the second half, the honeymoon is over. These are fractured fairytales that is about dreams gone wrong after wishes come true.
The original stage version also included Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, but those two characters and the bitter truths they embrace have been dropped for time. Also gone are the Woodsman, the Mysterious Man and Hansel and Gretel. That takes out a lot of clutter, but also means that this Rob Marshall directed musical movie doesn’t need an intermission.
What is left flows well. For those unfamiliar with the musical, a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) are childless and long for children. They make a wish, but remember near the enchanted forest you must be careful what you wish for. Their neighbor isn’t like a witch; she is a witch. Meryl Streep is a blue-haired hag who also has a wish. She reveals that her mother cursed the Baker because his father stole from her mother’s garden.
The witch will lift the spell if the Baker gets her four things: a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold, a cow as white as milk and hair as yellow as corn.
The cape belongs to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who goes into the woods and meets a Wolf (Johnny Depp in what looks like a zoot suit) on her way to her grandmother’s house. The slipper belongs to Cinderella (the brunette Anna Kendrick) who wishes to attend the 3-night ball given by a charming prince and goes into the woods to pray at the tree she planted at her mother’s grave. The cow belongs to Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) who will soon trade it for magic beans that will grow into a beanstalk. The hair belongs to Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) who is kept prisoner from the world in a tower deep in the woods. Her only visitor is the witch.
While I appreciate live theater, making this particular musical into a movie does has its advantages. We can see a grand castle. The princes meet at a babbling brook to sing about their agony and their are riding real horses. The witch can appear and disappear with much CGI magic.
As the characters wander into the woods, the woods takes on different personalities as if it was also a character in the play. The woods can seem enchanting and beautiful–filled with flowers for Little Red Riding Hood to gather. It can be a place of solitude and peace for a lonely Cinderella who is bullied and ridiculed by her stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch). It can be a place of frightening danger when a giant is on the loose. The woods seem vast and unknowable.
This version of fairytales might be too gory for young children. The stepsisters suffer mutilations (tastefully done) in order to get their large feet into Cinderella’s golden slipper. And how early do you want to distort the dreams of your children?
“Into the Woods” does justice to Sondheim, helped immensely, no doubt, because the screenplay is written by James Lapine who also wrote the book for the original musical. The Tony Award-nominated Marshall brought us the glitz of “Chicago” and now brings his Broadway best to this movie. The rhythms are right and the transitions smooth.
Marshall gives us both humor, pathos and fantasy in this musical frolic that isn’t too dark and not too light. If you enjoy Sondheim or like your fairytales a little bit fractured, this is a must-see.