It seems fitting that less than a week after the release of Annie, a crushingly inept movie musical, Into the Woods arrives to show audiences how movie musicals are done right. And it’s not merely pedigree that pushes Disney’s holiday tentpole over the top – though its impeccable design and seasoned performances are certainly formidable in and of themselves – but the willingness from all involved to simultaneously embrace, tweak, lampoon, and subvert the traditional tenets of the movie musical.
The film is based on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s famous Broadway production of the same name, and full disclosure: I knew little of the source material, except the plot’s basic outline. As a result, this review will not be a dissertation on the merits of the adaptation from stage to screen, though with Lapine writing the screenplay, it would appear quite a faithful one. However, what I can attest to, as an Into the Woods virgin, is how well it works as a complete experience – mischievous, immersive, and ultimately surprising.
“Complete” is the operative word, since the material takes its time developing themes, intertwining stories, and revealing its true nature. On its face, Into the Woods appears to resemble a live-action Shrek, a goofy lark that blends fairy tale legends and spoofs them with a self-referential smirk. As such, it is modestly successful, if a bit tiresome and one-note (though only in its film form, since the original stage version far presaged Shrek and its ilk). But clearly, Sondheim and Lapine had other ideas besides surface-level satire – they wanted to get under the skin of classical fairy tale characters and explore the depths of their desires and the consequences of their actions. It is those revelations that elevate this material to the next level.
And what interesting characters they are – entirely familiar but challenged within the context of this combined narrative, which throws them into a cauldron to expose who they really are. Among them, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes to attend the prestigious King’s Festival; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), en route to bring her grandmother treats, if only she could stop eating them herself; and a boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), whose cow won’t produce milk, so he barters it for some beans. At the center of the story are a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who long for a child but have been unable to conceive. They are unceremoniously visited one day by a gruesome witch (Meryl Streep) who informs them the cause of their infertility is a curse placed on their family lineage. In order to reverse said curse, the witch tasks the couple with procuring four very specific items. In order to obtain them, they must venture, well, into the woods, where they encounter their fairy tale counterparts in all manner of unexpected scenarios.
The story is fabulously creative and the performers are absolutely stellar – Blunt and Corden share surprising chemistry as the de facto leads, Streep is a wondrous scenery-chewing villain, and the spice added by the likes of Kendrick as a commitment-phobic Cinderella, Chris Pine as a particularly self-centered Prince Charming, and Johnny Depp in a cameo as The Wolf, is consistently delightful. But none of it would matter if Sondheim and Lapine’s source material didn’t translate to the cinematic form. Fortunately – and quite surprisingly – the filmmaking is what makes Into the Woods soar. For Rob Marshall, who started his career with an Oscar-winning musical (Chicago) but whose career swiftly devolved into likes of Nine and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, this film represents a career renaissance. It is not merely his best directorial work ever, but one of the most seamlessly cinematic musical adaptations I’ve seen in recent years. The visual atmosphere is gothic and literary without veering into modern-day Burton territory, the effects are playful, and the musical numbers don’t lean on the crutch of an established proscenium, instead filling the boundless space of the cinematic world without calling attention to themselves.
Marshall is also willing to go dark with his content, exploring what makes each character tick and using the setup of his story as a bait-and-switch of sorts, using one story as a guise for something deeper. It’s pretty challenging thematic territory for Marshall as well as for his Disney backers, but their audacity results in a cinematic musical experience that is far more than just enchanting.