The stage musical “Into the Woods” delightfully reminded audiences that while happy endings are possible, you should always be careful about what you’ve wished for. Now comes the movie version, and it’s a singing and dancing manifestation of both of those ideas.
Fans of the show finally get to see Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s wonderful fable brought to the big screen with the great score (mostly) intact and performed by a (mostly) perfect cast. Then there are the parts that don’t work, and those missteps turn out to be very much a reflection of who fulfilled the wish of making the film: Disney and director Rob Marshall. More on them in a moment.
In this fairy-tale mashup, a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) learn that their inability to reproduce dates back to a curse that the witch next door (Meryl Streep) placed on the baker’s father. He crept into her garden and stole not only greens but also her magic beans, and she’s willing to reverse the curse if the Baker can supply her with four items that will allow her to cast a spell.
Those items involve other residents of the kingdom: the crimson cloak belonging to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford); the white cow that Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, “Les Misérables”) must take to market at the insistence of his mother (Tracey Ullman); the blonde hair that grows all the way down the height of the tower where Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) has spent her life imprisoned by the witch; and the beautiful golden slipper that Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wears to the king’s festival after wishing at her mother’s gravesite.
The journey into the deep, dark woods is a life-changing one, not just for the baker and his wife — who keep finding, then losing, then finding the items they need — but for the other characters as well. For Cinderella, it’s a chance to defy her cruel stepmother (Christine Baranski, who else?); Jack, who trades his cow to the baker for magic beans, has an adventure high atop a beanstalk; and Little Red Riding Hood has a memorable encounter with a wolf (Johnny Depp) who seductively hides his dastardly intentions.
The first half of “Into the Woods” follows the pursuit of “happily ever after,” but the second half asks what comes after, and at what price do we pursue our wishes, and wonders whether we should have wished for those things in the first place. It’s a tricky shift in tone, but screenwriter James Lapine nails the transition as skillfully on screen as he did in the original stage production.
It’s the Stephen Sondheim songs, of course, that have played such a key role in making “Woods” such a beloved theatrical standard, and they’re performed skillfully here, for the most part. Sondheim’s compositions demand a lot from performers, who have to have the pipes to handle the intricate music but also the ability to race through the witty verbal gymnastics of his lyrics. Streep, to no one’s surprise, rises to the challenge, as does the theatrically trained Kendrick (whose first screen appearance involved tearing into Sondheim’s “Ladies Who Lunch” in the movie “Camp,” when the actress was just in her mid-teens).
The unexpected standouts here are Blunt, who manages the songs, the comedy and the despair of the baker’s wife with utter brilliance, and Chris Pine (channeling all the inner Shatner that he’s kept out of the “Star Trek” movies) and Billy Magnussen (“Damsels in Distress”) as the charming princes whose duet on “Agony” is a comic highlight. Preening, pouting and posing their way through a catalog of angst, these two showboat like contestants in a Fabio-hosted reality show dance-off.
The places where “Into the Woods” falls short feel like the result of Disney corporate tinkering. For one thing, Rapunzel comes to a far more blandly happy ending than her stage counterpart; one imagines bean-counters in Burbank concerned that leaving the character to her original fate might dig into the profits of “Tangled 3” or the sales of princess dresses. (There’s also no “Agony” reprise, apparently to let two other Disney princesses remain unblemished by the proceedings.)
Then there’s the miscasting of Crawford and Huttlestone: Both actors are so young that it removes the undercurrent of sexual awakening from the piece. This isn’t a from-left-field reading of the material, either; when Red Riding Hood sings about being “excited and scared” by her encounter with the Wolf, or Jack mentions the giant breast of the woman in the sky, you don’t have to be Bruno Bettelheim to connect the dots.
Onstage, Jack matures from being a young dolt to a slightly less dense young man after his sojourn in the sky; his movie counterpart starts out as a brash, gee-whiz, song-belting “Newsies” auditioner and then doesn’t change noticeably after climbing the beanstalk. And while Crawford doesn’t have Huttlestone’s annoying sing-to-the-back-mezzanine demeanor, she’s still a few years too young for her interactions with the Wolf to have the required resonance. Depp, for his part, finally has a role that can accommodate all the wacky tics he’s brought to every screen performance of late.
(Fans of the show who worried about specific changes hinted at by Sondheim in a New Yorker interview earlier this year can relax, and if that interview was Sondheim’s way of making the studio keep some of the darker material, then more power to him.)
Marshall deserves credit for knowing how to shoot and cut (alongside editor Wyatt Smith, “Thor: The Dark World”) a musical number, and his work here ranks much closer to his success with “Chicago” than to his dismal “Nine.” As with both of those previous musicals, however, Marshall has a tendency to make the film feel exceedingly claustrophobic, even when it’s set almost entirely outdoors.
The closed-in feeling worked for “Chicago” — the whole movie is supposed to be unspooling inside the feverish imagination of Roxie Hart, after all — but then completely sunk “Nine.” Yes, the woods should be foreboding and dank, but the setting never feels subsuming (as in, say, Neil Jordan’s “The Company of Wolves,” a much more highly sexualized take on the Red Riding Hood story) nor does it feel organically spacious; with few exceptions, the woods just feel like a set so small that it’s hemming in the action rather than a thicket that’s entrapping the characters.
Overall, however, “Into the Woods” does justice to the extraordinary source material, and it allows its seasoned ensemble (which also includes Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard as Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters) the chance to dig into the memorable songs and the clever wordplay. It might not be everything that fans had wished for over the years, but as both Sondheim and Mick Jagger have taught us, you can’t always get what you want.