Director: Rob Marshall
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Screenplay: James Lapine
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Disney and fairy tales go together like strawberries and cream and so a film musical that features many of the best loved fairy tale characters of all times seems a natural fit. When the musical in question though is Steven Sondheim’s Into The Woods, which takes a darker look at the cost of ‘happily ever after’, the match is slightly less obvious.
Though there are elements here that have been toned down for a family viewing, Rob Marshall’s cinematic adaptation of the stage hit works for multiple age ranges. Children will find plenty to enjoy without suffering too many sleepless nights while adults will find plenty of wry amusement in Sondheim’s witty and observant musical numbers.
As a host of fairytale characters set out on individual quests to find happiness it soon becomes clear that their respective paths may not be as straight forward as first seemed. A childless baker and his wife must find a series of objects to free themselves from a witches curse, Cinderella needs to find out if her Prince is actually charming and Jack needs to decide if his beloved cow is worth magic beans. As each seems to gain their happiness they are left to ponder at what cost.
On stage Sondheim’s piece is often described as two separate but linked acts, one story arc resolved in act one and then a darker unravelling in act two. The cinematic version avoids this and does offer a coherent whole, not entirely venturing down the sanitised Schools stage version which dispenses with the darker second act, instead offering somewhere in between.
Marshall’s direction build on his previous screen musical success with Chicago to once again delve deep into a musicals power to look inside the human psyche. There’s a strong focus on character and a sense that, despite their fairy tale backdrop, these are real, everyday people – albeit in a strange land.
Marhsall has assembled a cast, often unknown for their musical background, but a cast that acquits themselves well with Sondheim’s complex score.
James Corden as the Baker guides us through the piece and offers a real charm to the rôle. Alongside Emily Blunt as the Bakers Wife the pair offers the real heart to the piece. The two could easily be upstaged by the ultimate screen presence that is Meryl Streep but Streep’s performance is beautifully measured but imbibing every single word with raw emotion as the Witch. Streep’s singing, the cause of much debate in previous outing Mamma Mia, works surprisingly well here. Streep’s ability to capture the sheer emotion of a scene mirrored well in Sondheim’s Score.
There’s a fine vocal performance from Anna Kendrick as Cinderella although Chris Pine as her Prince seems somewhat uncomfortable in the musical numbers. There’s also a fine supporting cast with Tracy Ullman wringing the comedy aspects out of Jack’s Mother, Johnny Depp making a brief, but effective, appearance as a lecherous Wolf and Christine Baranski’s Stepmother bringing some vulgar glamour to the palace ball.
Marshall’s direction goes for the traditional, its rural setting could be the European heartlands of many of these stories traditional setting. There may be magical powers at play, marauding giants and maidens locked in towers but the whole piece is played almost entirely with a sense of realism. The moments when this is abandoned is when the film slightly stumbles. And in a bizarre twist for a film aimed at a family market it is the younger rôles that seem more problematic. Lilla Crawford’s New York Red Riding Hood jars against the otherwise rural European setting while Daniel Huttlestone’s Jack seems thinly drawn.
Given its family audience target market there has been some softening of the source material. Fans of the stage show may wince at the sugaring of the plot but overall the changes help drive the cinematic narrative, though the removal of No More from the end of the show does rob the piece of some dramatic climax.
It was never going to be an easy production to transfer to the stage, but as audiences return to the cinema after over indulging on festive sweets, Into The Woods offers a chance to feast again, though this time being forced to confront what our wishes really cost.
Into The Woods is released in the USA on 25 December and in the UK on 9 January