Into the Woods Review: Fairytale Awakening

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The beloved Broadway musical translates well onto the silver screen thanks to Rob Marshall’s adept direction and a truly talented cast.

For anyone worried that Stephen Sondheim’s more sophisticated fairytale would be Disney-fied in its transition to film, just wait until you see the prickliness of Johnny Depp’s Wolf as he preys upon Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). Yes, bits of the musical’s edgier material have been sanded down, but its dark heart is still very much intact.

This is good news, because in a film landscape overrun by updated versions of classic fairytales, Into the Woods stands alone. Perhaps this is because it isn’t really about any of the storybook characters it features. Yes, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk all make appearances, but really this is the story of a simple Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). More importantly, it’s a story about what we can learn about ourselves, and the world, if we just step outside our comfort zone.

Fairytales are told by parents to their children in order to teach them lessons and good morals. To that end, Into the Woods serves as a moral guide for the “real world,” where not everything can be categorized as black or white, or good or evil. For those unfamiliar, it follows the tale of the Baker and his Wife as they try to break the curse of a witch (Meryl Streep) so they can have a child. In order to do so, they must travel through the woods to find Cinderella’s slipper, Jack’s white cow, Little Red’s red hood, and a lock of Rapunzel’s (Mackenzie Mauzy) hair.

So a great quest begins and, because this is a Sondheim musical, it’s filled with endlessly catchy and uplifting tunes. The singing sequences are some of the film’s best, allowing Marshall to criss-cross between his many characters with glee. They also allow for some truly impressive performances, proving that this troupe of Hollywood superstars would be just as comfortable on the stage.

Streep is—unsurprisingly—fantastic as the Witch, imbuing her with the perfect mix of vengefulness and pathos. Kendrick, as we already know, has Broadway-ready vocals, and she uses them to great effect as a sweet, but inquisitive Cinderella. Other enjoyable performances include Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother and Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother.

Johnny Depp is pretty much Johnny Depp and you can take that whichever way you’d like to.

The real joy, however, comes from seeing actors like Blunt and Chris Pine navigate these untested waters with ease. As the Baker’s Wife, Blunt brings about both an alluring whimsey and a knowing concern. She plays excellently off Corden’s Baker. Not only do the two harmonize well, but one of the film’s most entertaining plot devices is their moments of sitcom-esque bickering amidst a larger-than-life adventure.

Pine, as Prince Charming, provides another welcome source humor. His role is the perfect sendup of the hunky, too-good-be-true princes we’ve come to expect from fairytales, and the purposefully overdramatic “Agony”—which he sings along with a fellow prince (Billy Magnussen)—is one of the film’s highlights.

As these characters traipse through the woods, they learn several lessons about life, love, and growing up. They aren’t the lessons you’d expect, but that’s what makes this movie such a subversive delight. One of the recurring themes throughout the story is the complex bond between parents and children, leaving something to discuss long after the credits roll.

The one qualm I have with the film is the same qualm I had when I first saw the show on Broadway. The first two-thirds whizz by wonderfully, but during the more melancholy finale, some issues arise with a certain giant and the film’s sense of morality. To go into too much detail here would spoil what eventually goes down in these magical woods, but I’ll say this: the ending doesn’t feel entirely deserved.

Still, this one bit of confusion hardly mars the rest of the film’s greatness. The cast is electric, the musical numbers are boisterous, and Marshall—a veteran movie musical director—once again proves he has the right chops for this sort of material.

Whether you’ve seen the musical and were awaiting the film adaptation with bated breath, or you don’t even know who Stephen Sondheim is, but just want to see Meryl Streep kill it once again, you’ll likely find something to enjoy when you head into the woods. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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