INTO THE WOODS (8.5 out of 10) – Directed by Rob Marshall, written by James Lapine, adapted from the musical by Stephen Sondheim; starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp; rated PG (thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material); running time: 124 minutes.
It’s easy to discount movie musicals as fluff pieces. Sure, it can be fun to see actors break into song and dance numbers (with the exception of Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia.” That shit is awful), but very few of them offer the level of introspection that Sondheim injects into his work. Of course, it takes a seasoned vet like Rob Marshall to bring that level of nuance to the big screen, and “Into the Woods” is a good example of what happens when cinematic talent, thoughtful source material, and dedicated performances come together to tell a story that applies to just about everyone who’s ever wished for something.
Plotwise, “Into the Woods” is a mixtape of archetypes and settings that were originally established by the Brothers Grimm. A witch (Meryl Streep) promises a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) a child if they perform four tasks for her. These tasks weave the narrative through the lives of other famous fairy tale characters, such as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Much like William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride,” this idealized fairy tale setting makes the film’s more tragic and realistic moments all the more ironic. Throughout the story, our characters learn—very painfully, at times—that living in a world where everyone wants their own happy ending can oftentimes lead to awful repercussions. Sondheim’s music and lyrics are used to emphasize these moments of clarity—most notably with the performance of “Your Fault” and “The Last Midnight,” in which our characters take turns trying to find someone to blame for their problems.
Speaking of music and lyrics, the overall performances were solid. The Witch’s character has some big numbers, and Meryl Streep held her own—is it weird that I found her strangely alluring after her ugly spell was broken?—but there were moments when the songs got too big for her. Both Kendrick and Blunt were nicely cast, and their performances were tight. Johnny Depp’s presence in the film will surely put asses in seats, but don’t expect too much screen time for the ex-pirate. He did add the appropriately sleazy vibe that the Wolf needed, but something about his inclusion felt like film bait. James Corden is perhaps the most unexpectedly awesome member of the cast. He manages to find the emotional core of his character while remaining charming and approachable. In contrast to Corden’s humble Baker, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are perfectly self-absorbed as the pair of princes who are out to court Cinderella and Rapunzel. Their performance of “Agony” while artfully tearing their shirts open in the middle of a rushing creek was nothing short of comedic gold.
While taking advantage of a talented group of actors has the power to bring a stage musical to new cinematic heights, it’s nice to see the filmmakers stay so faithful to the overall message of “Into the Woods.” It’s not about fairy tale endings and good conquering evil—it’s about making sense of a world that appears to give and take without discrimination. Sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow—but that’s what all the songs are for.