Translating a stage musical into a movie has never been an easy job. The difficulties most often lie in replicating theater’s intimacy, as even the most grandiose of productions are inherently limited in scale. Many film adaptations of musicals try to amp up the visuals, drowning out the details in the process.
Disney’s rendition of Into the Woods, the 1987 Tony Award winner created by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is both an obvious and bold choice for the family-friendly studio.
On the one hand, it’s a natural extension of the brand, because it features familiar fairy tale characters such as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame. On the other, the second act is notoriously dark, featuring moments that push the limits for younger viewers.
Director Rob Marshall gives the story the bells and whistles that moviemaking allows while retaining the small charms of the theater.
But director Rob Marshall (Chicago) juggles it all admirably. The story centers on the Baker (James Corden) and his barren wife (Emily Blunt), who have been cursed by a witch (Meryl Streep). To reverse the curse, they must gather four items: a milky white cow, which Jack owns; Red Riding Hood’s red cloak; Cinderella’s golden slipper; and Rapunzel’s yellow hair.
Without delving into spoiler territory, suffice it to say that Marshall is not as interested in the happily-ever-after portion of fairy tales as he is in exploring the unintended consequences of the actions of various characters. It’s a clever twist on well-known narratives that allows the audience to stretch their preconceived ideas in new directions.
Using judicious editing and an atmospheric setting in an actual forest, Marshall makes the most of both the story and the songs. The opening prologue song, aka “Into the Woods,” provides a jaunty intro into the film’s world and also sets up what to expect, storytelling-wise. The story is told mostly through song, an expositional choice that can sometimes lead to confusion, but it works perfectly here.
Indeed, the staging of the songs sets Into the Woods apart from other movie musicals. Marshall and his team give the story the bells and whistles that moviemaking allows while retaining the small charms of the theater. In one of the better scenes, Jack, the Baker, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and the Witch sing “Your Fault,” a quick-paced, back-and-forth number that has the feeling of a great live performance.
In that scene and throughout the film, nearly all of the actors are on point. Kendrick, who has also starred in Pitch Perfect and the forthcoming The Last Five Years, seems the ideal person to truly popularize the movie musical. Corden may want to reconsider shackling himself to his upcoming late-night talk show, as with this and Begin Again, he’s showing himself to be a force in the movie world.
Streep, as usual, is great, but she never truly stands out from the many other characters. Instead, revelations come from the likes of Blunt, who brings an openness and warmth to her role, and Chris Pine, who plays a blowhard of a prince. Johnny Depp is fine as the wolf after Red Riding Hood, but the role is so small it’s almost not worth mentioning.
Into the Woods, which wimps out a bit toward the end, may not entirely please those who loved the original stage production. But anyone who loves both movies and theater should be able to appreciate the fine work put in by all involved.