Most anyone who watches movies based on fairy tales will mention one studio as the richest source for their favorite adaptations of the works of Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen, among others: Disney.
Its big screen cartoon variations include last year’s “Frozen,” 2010’s “Tangled,” and dozens of others heralding back to 1937, with the release of its first full-length animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There’s also the live-action side, including Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” (1999) and “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), the lovely “Enchanted” (2007), and this year’s “Maleficent.” The mouse factory also offers the mash-up “Once Upon a Time” on the small screen.
So, it’s no stretch of the imagination that Disney is presenting us (and yes, it is a present, look under your tree) with “Into the Woods,” based on the popular 1987 stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (the latter adapting it for the big screen). A delightful, and sometimes dark, amalgam of numerous tales (Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel) that playfully intertwines stories and songs delivered by an all-star cast, some with a multi-colored to-do list. The Tony Award-winning score (Lapine’s book also won; the musical lost out to something called “The Phantom of the Opera”) is all the more memorable thanks to the intimacy of the constantly moving camera work. There are lots of close- and medium-shots, but still enough eye-popping wide shots—look at the huge beanstalk!—to reinforce the wise decisions made by the film’s producers to select who best can create the cinematic “Woods.” High on that list are cinematographer Dion Beebe and director Rob Marshall, with their uncanny ability to block out the cast in enterprising manner, just as they previously did on the marvelous “Chicago” and the lesser musical adaptation “Nine.” The technical achievements are stellar. Costumes, makeup, production design are A+.
Notwithstanding the incredibly rich source material, the talent in front, and behind, the camera translates it from stage to the CGI-enhanced screen oozes with high octane magic. Voices are pitch perfect, be it Anna Kendrick as the vibrant, wanna-be-free Cinderella, Christine Baranski as her nasty stepmother, James Corden—future host of “The Late, Late Show” and previous star of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” one of the funniest shows I ever saw on Broadway—and Emily Blunt as the humble Baker (and occasional narrator) and his wistful, childless wife, respectively. Their story, created for the play, ties all the other tales together.
Also, Meryl Streep as the cursed Witch, the comedienne Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother, and Johnny Depp (previously associated with Sondheim in Tim Burton’s film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street“) as the lascivious, zoot-suited Wolf, a creature with a devious badness and a huge appetite. He’s been toned down for the PG-rated film, but—as brief as his appearance in the film is—he’s a blast. And Chris Pine (Captain Kirk!) and Billy Magnussen, who shine as narcissistic, womanizing royalty (Rapunzel’s and Cinderella’s Princes), particularly in their hilarious, shirt-ripping duet of “Agony,” sung while side-stepping through a small, cascading waterfall. The two youngsters in the cast—Daniel Huttlestone as the industrious Jack and Lilla Crawford as the headstrong Little Red Riding Hood—are inspiring performers. Huttlestone made his film debut with a strong performance as Gavroche in “Les Miserables,” while Crawford wowed as the red-headed orphan in the 35th Anniversary Broadway production of “Annie.” Keep ’em singing!
The film, in gestation in various forms, survived decades of doubt whether it would ever see the light (or blue moon), and Marshall has made it a model for family-friendly entertainment (with dashes of mayhem and malice and magic all about), much like the junior version of the original 2-act, 3+ hour play (in which the darker, R-rated elements have been removed). Dunno about whether a theme ride is in the future, but let’s hope that today’s kids will push the soundtrack toward the top of the charts, even if it will never outsell the tunes from “Frozen.”
Whether you’re a fan of the daring, comedic play, the music of Sondheim, or today’s liberating fairy tale re-tinkerings in general, “Into the Woods” delivers. Just when you think it’s happily ever after at the 75-minute mark, an “earthquake” takes the action from fantasy wedding day back into the woods, now foggy (where did that come from?), dark, and under attack by a large woman. The pacing slows. The songs seem more intimate. Death happens. Infidelity, too. So it’s not all fun and games, although “Your Fault,” sung by Huttlestone, Corden, Crawford, Streep, and Kendrick tries to liven up a bleak situation. Streep’s appearance in this part of the film, under a weird slathering of makeup, is a tad off putting, and her energetic performance of “Last Midnight,” with striking lighting and wind effects, might be a bit too dramatic for some of the younger folks in the audience.
For all its fantastical moments, the film still maintains a sense of realism in how people deal with the tugs of their passions and the heart-stopping moments of life. Surround those with sprinkles of Sondheim and you’ll always get a strange, wondrous brew. “Into the Woods” is one astonishing drink.