Fairy tales retold in Rob Marshall’s sly, savvy ‘Into the Woods’
It’s not enough that the folks at Walt Disney Studios devised Once Upon A Time on TV as a recycling center for all its used fairy tale characters. There must also be a Faustian bargain inked in blood somewhere that no fairy tale spin-off can ever again be produced without Disney participation. So after nearly 30 years since the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical fairy tale mashup Into the Woods stormed onto Broadway, it took the folks at Disney to get the property up onscreen.
The good news is that even without Broadway’s beloved Bernadette Peters as the Witch, the show makes an entertaining, sly and delicious transition to the screen. The bad news? There isn’t any. Capably directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), and reimagined for the screen by scriptwriter Lapine, Into the Woods is a savvy piece of moviemaking that delivers Sondheim’s witty lyrics and intricate harmonies with style and clarity, while considering timeless fairy tale themes in all their glamorous, sinister glory.
The story is both a wistful cautionary tale to be careful what you wish for, and a sardonic meditation on what happens after Happily Ever After. A marvelous opening song cycle and montage introduces the major characters and their desires: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), toiling away at her hearth, wishes to go to the King’s festival—to the braying amusement of her harridan stepmother (Christine Baranski) and her stepsisters. The poor boy, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), wishes he and his exasperated mom (Tracey Ullman) weren’t poor so he wouldn’t have to sell their cow. The village Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wish to have a child.
The abrupt appearance of “the witch from next door” (Meryl Streep) sets things in motion. Turns out she was responsible for a curse against the Baker’s father that prevented his heirs from ever again procreating. To reverse the curse, he and his wife must venture into the woods and bring back certain objects she requires to brew a magical potion: a cow as white as milk, a cloak as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, slippers as pure as gold. Which soon involves them in the tales of Red Riding Hood (a very funny Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp, a slick hipster in a furry Zoot Suit), Rapunzel locked in her tower (Mackenzie Mauzy), Cinderella, fleeing her Prince (the scene-stealing Chris Pine), and Jack, persuaded to sell his cow for a handful of “magic beans.”
When this round of tasks is finally completed, and everyone seems to have what they want (or wished for), complications ensue. Life at the palace isn’t nearly as much fun for a pampered princess under constant guard as it was for a plucky serving girl in disguise. Jack’s beanstalk leads him to stolen riches of gold, but also brings a vengeful giant into their village. (A giantess, actually, played by the great British stage thespian Frances de la Tour, whose harsh fate is the only sour note in the story.) Cinderella’s Prince, searching the woods yet again for his runaway bride, strays into the arms of the dazzled baker’s wife.
Lapine cleverly interweaves these classic tales. Rapunzel is the baker’s sister, imprisoned after their father stole from the Witch’s garden. The baker is the woodsmen who liberates Red from the Wolf’s stomach. Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) are brothers, interchangeable (in the classic Disney cartoon mold), and unreliable in their romantic attachments.
For actors not known as singers, this cast proves up to the challenge of Sondheim’s score. Streep’s “Stay With Me,” sung to Rapunzel, is impressively heartfelt. Pine and Magnussen’s duet, “Agony,” the brother princes’ hilarious exercise in romantic one-upmanship, is the highlight of the movie.
Instead of “opening up” the stage play, Marshall focuses the action within the forest. Once the characters go “into the woods” early on, they stay there. Even later festivities at the palace with the princes presenting their brides are viewed from the ground up, at a distance, until everyone returns to the woods—reminding us that fairy tale woods stand in for the percolating stew of the human psyche, where lessons are learned and heartbreak and magic are born.
INTO THE WOODS
***1/2 (out of four)
With Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, and Chris Pine. Written by James Lapine. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Rob Marshall. A Disney release. Rated PG. 125 minutes.