Once upon a time, in a movie theater near you, there played a strange and improbable story set to strange and improbable music that somehow got green-lighted by Disney.
Everything about Rob Marshall’s lush, big-budget adaptation of “Into the Woods,” the beloved 1987 musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, is wondrously strange, and all of it is improbable: the story, which transforms classic fairy tales into reflections of modern fears and psychoses; casting so perfect it had to have come from the musical theater gods; and, of course, the fact that it was ever made.
This “Into the Woods” is exactly the beautifully wrapped package that musical theater fans have been daydreaming about tearing open on Christmas morning for more than a year. The result seems destined to please all but the most nitpicking musical theater fans, for whom the 1987 musical has achieved almost biblical status.
Driven by extraordinary performances from Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and a fantastically feral and decrepit Meryl Streep as a vindictive witch, “Into the Woods” delivers everything super-fans might want, minus a couple of prickly plot points and a few choice sections of the score.
Those who have not yet acquired a taste for Sondeim’s comparatively challenging music might wish for a gift receipt after the dark fairy-tale redux draws to a close. Though beautifully shot and sensitively acted, this niche-specific adaptation, unlike “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” or even “Sweeney Todd” before it, seems unlikely to produce many converts.
You might have gotten a different impression from Disney’s advance publicity, which prepared moviegoers not for a challenging musical, but a low-stakes, kid-friendly action movie on the order of “Maleficent.” Little was done to prime audiences for Sondheim’s gorgeous yet complex score, which takes up most of the film’s 124 minutes and makes substantial demands on performers and audience members alike.
Just know all this going in, and you’ll do fine.
It’s a small miracle that the film maintains such faith to mood and spirit of the original story, which subverts classic fairy tales and twists them into foreboding metaphors for grown-up disappointments, mistakes, heartbreaks and hard-won redemptions. Aside from a few lamented cuts, Marshall, with Sondheim and Lapine’s help, honors both the slicing humor and underlying menace of the tale.
The film, like the show, begins with Sondheim’s prologue, its most complex and by far its most grating song. This neatly sets up all the characters’ desires: Cinderella’s wish to go the festival and meet her dashing prince; Little Red Riding Hood’s wish to safely travel to her grandmother’s house; the baker and his wife’s shared wish to have a child.
The central cleverness of the story is that all the wishes come true, and none of them do – a little like life. But it can often be a bit too clever and overbearing in its insistence on reminding us at every turn about the meanings of its titular metaphor.
The woods, we are reminded time and time again, are meant to symbolize uncertainty, danger and dread, but also possibility and progress. We venture into them, Sondheim and company make abundantly clear, at our own peril.
Where the story can seem overbearing in the wrong ways, the performances strike exactly the right tone.
Is it any surprise that Streep steals the show (as if it wasn’t hers to begin with)? The evident glee with which she sinks her cracked, yellow teeth into the witch’s worst moments is matched only by the deep and affecting tenderness she brings to Sondheim’s smartest and most beautiful song from the show, “Stay with Me.” Her irresistibly overblown delivery of the show-stopping “Last Midnight,” gussied up by a few too many swirling special effects, is destined to put her in the running for yet another Oscar.
Blunt, as the baker’s wife, turns in the film’s funniest, warmest and most sensitive performance. In an interview with the New York Times, she said Marshall was looking for “an actor who can kind of sing, not the other way around.” If what Blunt does in this movie is “kind of” singing, I’d like to hear her idea of the real thing.
The same goes for the smart casting of Pine as the charming but somewhat daft and lascivious prince, who, with Billy Magnussen, delivers a hilarious and highly satisfying version of the campy number “Agony” atop a flowing waterfall.
The talent here runs much deeper, from James Corden’s moving turn as the baker and young Daniel Huttlestone’s extraordinary performance as Jack (he of the bean stalk) to Buffalo’s own Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s comically evil stepmother. Johnny Depp also is in the film.
This is the sort of movie that demands you decide what kind of person you are before you enter the theater. For the musical-averse, it isn’t likely to change your mind. But for Sondheim devotees, it’s about as lovely a cinematic Christmas present as we’re likely to see for some time.
“Into the Woods”
3 stars (Out of four)
Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp. 124 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.