Into the Woods
Disney’s latest fairy tale mashup is fun but fractured
Into the Woods
Directed by Rob Marshall
Cast: James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine
One would certainly be forgiven for thinking America is suffering from fairy tale overload at this point. There is, for example, that ubiquitous soundtrack to Frozen still ringing in our ears. Add to that the nonstop parade of live-action fairy tales in movie theaters (from Alice in Wonderland to Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters to Jack the Giant Slayer to Maleficent). And be sure not to forget TV’s weekly Disney princess mash-up “Once Upon a Time” (to say nothing of NBC’s “Grimm” or ABC’s upcoming “Galavant”). But if viewers can handle the umpteenth reboot of Batman’s origin story, they can probably handle the umpteenth reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood.
Into the Woods—which comes to us from notorious fable-hustler Disney—is based on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony Award-winning musical of the same name. Like “Once Upon a Time” (and Shrek and several others), it freely allows characters from several famous Brothers Grimm tales to interact with one another—making it the Cream/Traveling Wilburys/The Firm/Damn Yankees of fairy tales.
Things kick off in jaunty style with a childless baker (British comedian James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt from The Devil Wears Prada) being visited by a cackling witch (Meryl Streep). According to the witchy one, she’s placed a curse on the baker because of some misdeeds his father once committed. The only way to break the curse (and impregnate his wife) is to perform a series of tasks. She wants the unhappy couple to go into the nearby woods and return with a lock of yellow hair (from Rapunzel), a golden shoe (from Cinderella), a white cow (from Jack of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame) and a red cape (from, of course, Little Red Riding Hood).
Sondheim and Lapine imagine the woods as a sort of primal space in which magic is real and fantasies come true. It’s also a place where desires are notoriously hard to hide. By relying on older, darker and much bloodier versions of the Grimms’ famous tales, Into the Woods became a deliciously adult version of the stories we all remember from childhood. Here we have a Cinderella story involving bodily mutilation and a lot of characters who come to realize—often to their own detriment—that wishing for something isn’t the same as having it. Unfortunately, Disney’s movie version of Into the Woods tones down a lot of the more mature stage material, resulting in a film that hovers somewhere between traditional Disney cartoonishness and modern-day reinvention. It retains the essence of the original’s subversive wit but waters it down quite a bit, which is a shame.
It’s clear that on stage Into the Woods is a kinetic spectacle. Characters loop in and out, popping on and off stage, perpetually finding and losing the objects of their individual quests. In addition to our three talented principals, we get Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel, Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood. Unfortunately, what worked great on stage (the rapid-fire ensemble filled with big entrances and splashy exits) comes across as rather chaotic on screen. For example, Johnny Depp—who shows up in all the advertising as the much-touted Big Bad Wolf—spends all of four or five minutes on screen before disappearing entirely.
It takes a certain skill to work through Sondheim’s verbal gymnastics correctly—but, like the comic dialogue of Neil Simon, it’s pretty hard to screw up the content. Sondheim’s wonderful wordplay comes through whether the notes are nailed or not. Streep won’t exactly bury images of her role’s originator (the inimitable Bernadette Peters), but she’s clearly having a blast. Corden (who’s about to take over as host of CBS’ “The Late, Late Show”) and Blunt (who’s got a surprisingly good voice) are adorable together (even though they spend most of the film apart). Pine has a hilarious number touting his own awesomeness. Ullman is always a welcome presence, even though she’s got a small role. Stage vet (and former “Annie”) Crawford may be having the most fun though. Her round face and nasal voice give the character of Little Red Riding Hood a load of personality. (Although, the casting of very young actors for Red and Jack diffuses a lot of the story’s sexual innuendo.)
Director Rob Marshall knows how to shoot a movie musical. He made arguably the best stage-to-screen adaptation with 2002’s Chicago. (The less said about 2009’s major misstep Nine, the better.) Here, he’s reverent of, but not particularly inspired by, the original. He keeps the energy high and the production dazzling. But it’s more about concept and less about coherence. Likable as some of the performances and production numbers are, the project as a whole never really gels. The story remains fractured, the pacing chaotic and the settings a bit too claustrophobic. If you’re excited by the idea of yet another singing Cinderella, however, this will keep you going—at least until Disney releases its new, live-action version of Cinderella in March.