'Into the Woods': Film Review

As enchanting a screen version as the show's fans could desire

Meryl Streep heads an all-star ensemble in Rob Marshall's film adaptation of the unconventional fairy-tale musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

The tentative 21st century rebirth of the movie musical has been one step forward, two steps back. But Rob Marshall, who directed a commercially successful example in Chicago and a misconceived dud in Nine, hits a sweet spot between cinematic and theatrical with his captivating film adaptation of Into the Woods. This twisty fairy-tale mash-up shows an appreciation for the virtues of old-fashioned storytelling, along with a welcome dash of subversive wit. It benefits from respect for the source material, enticing production values and a populous gallery of sharp character portraits from a delightful cast.

Its skeptical view of happy endings makes this release a tricky fit for the holiday family niche. But Disney should do nicely over the long haul with a classy film that will entertain youth audiences yet contains enough sly humor and narrative complexity to keep adults engaged.

Arguably the most accessible, though not the best, of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, the 1987 Broadway hit is stuffed with themes that might easily have turned sugary in a screen treatment from this studio: the parental urge to teach and protect; the child's propensity to learn more by experience and error; the marvels and menace of the world beyond home; the pain of loss; and the solace of community.

But screenwriter James Lapine, adapting his own book for the show, has retained the balance of dark and light, shaping a cohesive story of resilience and maturation out of multiple strands without leaning too hard on the sentiment. What was played for gallows humor onstage is often treated more earnestly here, and the violence and tragedy are suggested more than shown. But there's enough Brothers Grimm in the tone to offset charges of Disney-fication.

Marshall has mercifully avoided the wearisome trend of turning revisionist fairy tales into dour action fantasies set in digitized kingdoms out of a video game. (See Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunter, Jack the Giant Slayer, Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman ... no, better yet, don't.) CGI effects are used with intelligence and economy, primarily where the story's magic dictates, and the mix of soundstage sets with atmospheric locations is for the most part harmonious.

A virtuoso opening sequence signals right off the bat that Marshall and Lapine know what they're doing. In roughly 12 minutes of song and interspersed dialogue propelled by the musical motif "I wish," they introduce the major characters and identify the quests that will take them through the woods.

Those key figures include a handful of classic fairy-tale recruits: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) toils in the scullery of her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski), dreaming of attending the royal ball; feisty Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) sets off to visit her granny; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is forced by his exasperated mother (Tracey Ullman) to take his cherished but milkless cow to the market to be sold.

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An original story converges with those timeworn tales, concerning the village Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), unable to conceive a child. This is due to the curse of a Witch (Meryl Streep), whose beauty was destroyed when the Baker's father (Simon Russell Beale) raided her garden and stole her magic beans. But she gives the young couple a chance to reverse the curse, with a series of tasks that set the journey in motion.

That would be more than enough plot to sustain most movies. But this musical's raison d’etre is its exploration of the happily-ever-aftermath of wish fulfillment, as the characters face the murky consequences of their moral compromises. The most frightening lesson is never piss off a Lady Giant (Frances de la Tour, as sparingly glimpsed as the shark in Jaws). But there are other takeaways regarding blame and responsibility as the survivors confront an unknown side of themselves revealed during their time in the woods.

Like the prior collaboration of Sondheim and Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George, this is a show whose distinct halves require a significant tonal shift that not every production navigates fluidly. Marshall does well enough, even if the momentum falters after the buoyancy and cleverness of the first hour. But that's also partly due to the thematic clutter of diffuse material that has always tried to cover more ideas than the fanciful conceit can fully support.

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However, those reservations in no way diminish the charm, humor and poignancy of the overall experience. A key reward for the show's legions of fans will be the sophisticated treatment of the score, which is orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick and conducted by Paul Gemignani, both longtime Sondheim collaborators.

The cuts are invariably smart ones made for pacing reasons — with some lyrics reworked as dialogue and melodies repurposed as underscoring — but the majority of the songs are represented. And unlike Tim Burton's film of Sweeney Todd, which jettisoned the magnificent title ballad that sets the tone for the entire musical, the sacrifices are justifiable. The most missed of them will likely be "No More," sung by the Baker and his father, but its emotions are fully conveyed by Corden without slowing the late action.

The actors' incisive character work impresses across the board, as does their musicality, and unlike 2012's turgid Les Miserables, they make it look effortless.

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Streep is quite wonderful, delivering something far richer than her karaoke turn in the clunky Mamma Mia! Her performances in the film adaptations of stage hits Doubt and August: Osage County are among her less remarkable work of recent years. But she reinvents this role from scratch, bringing powerful vocals, mischievous comedic instincts, bold physicality and raw feeling to the Witch. Her entrances and exits alone are priceless.

She also aces some of the musical's best songs: the furious waltz "Last Midnight"; the beautiful cautionary anthem "Children Will Listen"; and "Stay With Me," a wrenching plea to Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), the adopted daughter she has imprisoned in a tower, ostensibly for the girl's safety.

Perhaps even more than on stage, the muddled ways in which parents bestow their love are illustrated with touching compassion, whether it's the lengths the Baker and his wife will go to have a child or the fierce protectiveness of Jack's mother, her affection often tempered with a cuff to the head. Even Cinderella's materialistic stepmother acts out of a crazed desire for the happiness of her daughters (Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch), a pair of odious airheads.

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In the central roles, Corden and Blunt have disarming chemistry, in both the comic and romantic sense. He's sweet-natured, guileless and burdened by the sins of his father, while she's a shrewder type, willing to stray from the path. Kendrick has never been more luminous, and her big song, "On the Steps of the Palace," is among the highlights, performed as a moment of suspended time. Lapine's smart touch of having her deliberately leave behind a shoe remains a gem.

As the Prince who confesses, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere," Chris Pine is a hoot, preening and posing with self-satisfaction, and baffled that any maiden might resist him. Billy Magnussen is equally good as the Prince's younger brother, blinded by love for Rapunzel. Like campy escapees from some overheated bodice-ripper, the Princes compete to outdo each other in melodramatic intensity — and pecs — in the hilarious "Agony," sung while prancing about a rocky cascade.

The younger actors are excellent, both nailing their signature songs. Huttlestone captures the dreamy wonder and excitement of "Giants in the Sky," while Crawford (star of Broadway's recent Annie revival) is appealingly precocious. When she sings "I Know Things Now," you believe her.

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The one actor lost in the shuffle is Johnny Depp as the Wolf. He looks perfect in costumer Colleen Atwood's Tex Avery-inspired lupine zoot suit, and salivates over his human dinner with gusto. But the role is an enjoyable cameo with little impact. And in an ugly CG sequence that jars stylistically with the rest of the movie, Marshall botches the detour into the Wolf's stomach to liberate his prey.

But elsewhere, the film is ravishing. Cinematographer Dion Beebe paints the widescreen canvas in seductive shadow, light and muted color, keeping the camera movement sedate unless its agility is in response to the music. Dennis Gassner's handsome production design evokes classic English fairy-tale illustration; the farmhouse where Jack and his mother live is just gorgeous. Atwood's costumes playfully mix time periods with an eye for character detail; her gown for the transformed Witch is a couture-drag knockout. And editor Wyatt Smith smoothly integrates dramatic scenes with songs, charging ahead from one number to the next without seeming rushed.

Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Lucamar Productions, Marc Platt Productions
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Billy Magnussen, MacKenzie Mauzy, Simon Russell Beale, Frances de la Tour
Director: Rob Marshall
Screenwriter: James Lapine, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Lapine
Producers: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt, Callum McDougall

Director of photography: Dion Beebe
Production designer: Dennis Gassner
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Wyatt Smith
Visual effects supervisor: Matt Johnson
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Casting directors: Francine Maisler, Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield

Rated PG, 125 minutes