Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements, Fantasy Action and Peril, and some Suggestive Material
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: James Lapine
(based on the musical INTO THE WOODS by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Mackenzie Mauzy & Daniel Huttlestone
A film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed Broadway play, INTO THE WOODS, has been in the works since the 90’s. After many production ups, downs, and studio changes, the long-awaited movie has finally been released. I must confess to having not seen the play and knowing next to nothing about the story. This all being said, I had a good time watching INTO THE WOODS and it’s one of the darkest films under the Disney banner to come out in a long time. The massive amount of talent behind the scenes shines through in a memorable, though slightly flawed, fantasy musical.
A Baker and his Wife have unknowingly been cursed by their neighbor and are unable to conceive a child. One morning, the witch comes by with an offer that if they retrieve four specific items that she needs for a spell, she will reverse the curse and bless them with a child. The desperate couple decide to go on the complicated scavenger hunt and wind up encountering various fairy tales in progress. These include Jack and the Bean Stalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Red Riding Hood. All four well-known tales are interconnected and continue after the initial “Happily Ever After” point into something darker than initially expected.
INTO THE WOODS is clever in the way that it connects multiple stories into one entity. The pacing is quick, but also slows down in places as two storylines are more interesting than the others. I was fully engaged in Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. However, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel merely seem set up so they can deliver a couple of developments in the last 40 minutes. The scavenger hunt wraparound is entertaining, but mainly serves as a driving force to bring these four fairy tales together.
Obviously, the most important part of a musical lies in the quality of the actual music. INTO THE WOODS is filled with songs that range from catchy and funny to emotional and memorable. There are also a couple of musical numbers that easily could have been cut. The running time is already a bit long as it is and when a few songs queued up my thought process was “Alright, I guess we have three more minutes of this scene to get through.” However, these are just three tunes from an otherwise memorable soundtrack. My personal favorites are “Agony” (in which two princes lament over seeking their loves) and “Hello, Little Girl” (in which the Wolf contemplates his future meal). This movie is comprised of about 80% songs and hardly any spoken conversations. If you hate musicals, this might not be for you. It also bears mentioning that certain bits of the score reminded me of SWEENEY TODD (which makes sense seeing that Stephen Sondheim composed both of them).
The cast is made up of big names and unknowns. Whether they are famous or not, every performer can sing well and knows how over-the-top or subtle to make their characters in specific scenes. Meryl Streep is front and center on most of the marketing for this film, but serves as means to an end in her character. The same can be said for the James Corden as the Baker and Emily Blunt as his Wife. Anna Kendrick (who has proven herself to be a remarkable actress) is absolutely fantastic as Cinderella and steals just about every scene that she’s in. Johnny Depp briefly hams it up as the Wolf, but nowhere near the annoying degree that some may expect of him in yet another quirky role. My favorite character and bit of casting was Chris Pine as Prince Charming. He’s hilarious and a lot of fun to watch, particularly in two musical numbers (the aforementioned “Agony” being one of them).
In terms of production values, INTO THE WOODS is excellent. Every detail is brought to life through various effects. The film (and its source material) stick closely the original Grimm’s fairy tales, which means that the Cinderella storyline does get quite gruesome (though brought with a wink and nudge of dark humor). I’m not exactly a fan of the make-up on Meryl Streep as the Witch, but Johnny Depp’s appearance as the Wolf was refreshingly subtle (not much face paint or over-the-top costume design). WOODS captures an atmosphere that shifts from whimsical to eerie in the blink of an eye.
The biggest surprise that I got out of INTO THE WOODS was the story becoming its own fairy tale with specific (and complicated) moral messages. These don’t quite reveal themselves until the last act, which started off shakily and gradually grew on me. The movie is far from perfect (a couple of unneeded musical numbers and a stretched running time), but it’s a lot of fun. This is more of a mature fantasy than I was originally expecting. INTO THE WOODS is a good musical that will entertain fans of fairy tales, adults and children alike.