I may be in the minority amongst lovers of movie musicals, but I found the 2002 Academy Award winning Chicago to be rather flat. Rob Marshall, the director of Chicago, also helmed the Daniel Day Lewis musical Nine, which was kind of a mess. You can understand my concern that Marshall directed this new adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. Since the legendary Sondheim also gave his approval of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd film adaptation (which I thought was dreadful) my expectations for this one were really low.
All of this is to say that Into the Woods not only exceeded my expectations, it so inspired me that I watched portions of the film quickly after completing it. Marshall’s direction is imaginative and does everything you hope a musical will be on film. It expands upon the original stage production and accomplishes things that can only be done in cinema. In other words, this is not merely a filmed version of the stage play; it is an epic, mature musical (don’t let that Disney-fied PG rating fool you) that is full of imagination, fantastic performances, and a glorious soundtrack of songs that have the ability to move you to tears of joy and sadness.
The original Tony-winning musical was a massive success on Broadway back in 1987. Since then, it has become one of the most performed musicals in high schools and in theaters around the world. It’s surprising that it took so long for it to become a film, but the wait was worth it, as Marshall’s passion for the material comes through in every frame of the film, and he directs his great cast to perfection.
James Corden (what a year he’s having, huh?) and Emily Blunt are the Baker and his wife. Their years of trying to have a child have proven fruitless, yet they still hold out hope that someday they’ll be blessed with a son or a daughter. What they don’t realize is that their house is under a curse by the Witch (newcomer Meryl Streep) who lives next door. Years ago, when the Baker was an infant, his father sneaked into the witch’s garden and stole some magic beans. In retribution for this crime, the witch cursed the house of the Baker.
The witch offers to lift the curse, but only if the Baker and his wife bring her four objects: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood, and a slipper as pure as gold. What she needs these objects for is left a mystery to the couple, but they embark on the journey. Their quest will lead them to cross paths with a naïve Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who lives in destitute with his overbearing, yet loving mother (Tracey Ullman), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), who lives locked in a tower by her mother (surprise, it’s the Witch), a snotty Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who finds Prince Charming (Chris Pine) only to discover that he’s kind of a douche.
The first half of the movie is the quest for these objects. It’s not just the story of the Baker and his wife. Each character receives sufficient screen time for us to understand their backgrounds and motivations. Jack, a kind hearted boy, reluctantly sells his pet cow to the Baker for magic beans. He hopes that those beans will somehow provide him and his mother with enough money that he’ll be able to buy back the cow. Rapunzel is having a secret love affair with Charming’s brother, a much more noble prince, and she doesn’t realize how twisted her mother is (and that she isn’t really her mother). Red is on the cusp of adolescence and wants to be treated like a grown up. She finds out that she may not be ready for adulthood when she encounters a lascivious wolf (Johnny Depp, who’s really good). Cinderella yearns for a happy ending life, away from her cruel stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters. By the time the Baker and his wife have obtained all of the objects for the witch, the lives of these characters seem destined to live happily ever after.
Then act 2 begins and all of those wishes that the characters thought would make their lives perfect don’t necessarily achieve their goal. The second half of the film is dark, brooding and nothing like the kid-friendly film that Disney marketed to the masses. I loved it. If you were a fan of the original musical and you worried that Disney would water down the sexual overtones and nastiness of the stage production, you need not be worried. True, it’s not as in your face as the play, but there are definitely moments when watching that you may question the family-friendly PG rating.
In reading about the play on Wikipedia I understand that Marshall, Sondheim and Lapine (who wrote the screenplay adaptation) cut several songs from it for this film. Sondheim also wrote the score for the film, and his new music replaces some of those songs and acts as a perfect bridge between scenes. Whatever cuts were made are seamless.
Fans of Sondheim and movie musicals should rejoice. Into the Woods is a triumph of the genre and I truly regret missing it on the big screen.
The Blu-ray comes with commentary by Marshall, a four part “making of” featurettes, a feature that allows you to jump to specific songs with the lyrics scrolling across the screen, and a brand new Sondheim song written exclusively for the film. This number, performed by Streep, was filmed and in the first cut of the movie. However, Marshall, Sondheim and Streep all agreed that the movie didn’t need it and it was cut. The Blu-ray also comes with a digital HD copy of the movie.