When looking at modern American musical theater, it is hard to imagine any other person having a bigger impact than Stephen Sondheim. It is surprising, then, that Into the Woods is only our third film adaptation of a Sondheim musical, with Sweeney Todd seven years ago and West Side Story 53 years ago (it went on to win Best Picture). With its blending of classic themes and characters from the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm as well as yet another witty Sondheim score, Into the Woods has been stewing as a film adaptation for a number of years. Perhaps it is most fitting that the studio that would finally put the musical on film would be Disney, the company which made its name on fairy tale adaptations. But could Disney and director Rob Marshall (Chicago) take a darker property like Into the Woods and make it appropriate for families without losing what fans have loved for years?
Wanting desperately to have a child, a Baker and his wife (James Corden, Emily Blunt) journey into the woods to undo a curse brought on their family be a witch (Meryl Streep). On that journey, they come across numerous characters from Grimm fairy tales including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). But as all these characters go to have their wishes granted, they learn that perhaps having those wishes granted is not the happily every after they wanted.
On the surface, the story of Into the Woods is not going to feel too new to many today. With things in pop culture like Once Upon A Time and Fables, the blending of fairy tale characters is not an idea that feels perhaps as somewhat revolutionary as it did in 1987. But it is this familiarity with the idea where Into the Woods has the biggest potential to surprise audiences. By making them think they have seen this story before, the first half of the film is able to tease in ideas that are new; ideas which pay off big time in the second half. One of Sondheim's lyrics, "wishes come true, not free" is the best explanation of the thematic arc of Into the Woods. The film's exploration of not only wishes coming true, but the idea of childhood/parenthood and the importance of being a child, but also the importance of growing up allows for it to differentiate itself from what has come before. Rob Marshall captures these moments wonderfully thanks to one of the best ensemble casts on film in 2014.
Purists of the musical will be glad to know that the stage show is mostly intact, no doubt due to the fact that original writer James Lapine provides the screenplay. Many of the show's darker moments lifted straight from the Grimm fairy tales are there, albeit most of them handled off screen to preserve that PG rating. Two major songs are cut: the reprise of "Agony" by the two Princes and "No More," but the plot is not too affected by that loss. A few small lyrical changes are made, but these also make sense in the way the movie sets up certain moments.
As Into the Woods is not a flashy, song and dance musical like Rob Marshall's Chicago, the aforementioned ensemble cast is really able to show off their acting chops. Meryl Streep is the heaviest hitter, which should not come as a huge surprise. The Witch is one of the more coveted female roles in musical theater, all due to a perfect performance by Bernadette Peters in the original cast. Streep takes the reins of the role exceedingly well, delivering a performance which completely wipes away any memories of Mamma Mia. This is easily her best work since Doubt. Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt also give unsurprisingly great performances, though the former is definitely stronger. James Corden is going to end up being one of the underrated aspects of the film, delivering one of the stronger vocal and acting performances in the cast, but mostly overshadowed by the more dynamic characters. The fact that Blunt is getting nominations over Corden is a shame. Johnny Depp's Tex Avery-inspired Wolf is the least exciting performance, but by no means terrible. Those who don't like Depp will be glad to know his part is quite small.
Since this is a musical, it's best to take a quick moment to discuss the singing abilities of this cast. Broadway caliber should not be expected, but this cast has some surprisingly amazing vocal talents. Again, Kendrick, Streep, and Corden are the front runners for best singers in the entire cast, handling Sondheim's often difficult lyrics and music very well. With their experience in professional theater, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone as Red and Jack respectively tackle the Sondheim score well. Chris Pine's Prince is perhaps the most surprising singing role as Pine is actually a beautiful singer. It's a shame he only has two songs throughout the film. The rest of the cast does a good to adequate job, with Depp once again being the weak link in the bunch.
Though Depp's mediocre performance could be seen as a negative, that is not really where Into the Woods struggles. Instead, the film's biggest weakness is its pacing. On stage, the first act of the show can be a bit slow, but it is actually in the second half of the film where it feels like things take a jarring halt. This is perhaps due to the second act having the most songs either shortened or axed completely. The first half of the movie flows along nicely from one musical number and story moment to another, the second half introduces a brand new story element backed up with fewer songs, making the whole thing feel longer than it really is. It is tough to say that putting those songs back in would help the story all that much, and it doesn't feel like an editing mistake, but the feeling of the movie being long is likely going to be the biggest complaint audiences take away. In a year filled with numerous films which disappointed, however, a movie that feels just a tad too long but is otherwise complete is not too terrible a sin.
Last year Disney brought us Frozen, yet another fairy tale-inspired musical from the studio which further cemented their reputation as king of the animated movie. It is when one considers that idea that Into the Woods, with its decidedly darker (yet often funny) story that takes these fairy tales and shows us why they are not always so happy, coming from a studio like Disney feels like a match made in heaven. Disney and Rob Marshall are the ones who SHOULD have been telling this story from the beginning, and they do so well. Sondheim's work is translated perfectly to the screen, keeping the themes of childhood, parenting, and wish fulfillment in tact. Portrayed by one of the best ensemble casts of the year, Into the Woods is perhaps the perfect viewing choice this Christmas. Do not be surprised if this film makes it on to the Best Picture list come Oscar season.