Into the Woods
Directed by Rob Marshall
Opens December 25
For Stephen Sondheim obsessives, the news that his sublime 1986 musical, Into the Woods, was finally making its way to cinemas was cause for celebration and concern. Sondheim’s material typically hasn’t been treated well in movies; he’s a major theater artist whose multilayered music and lyrics somehow seem diminished on the big screen. (Search Elizabeth Taylor and A Little Night Music on YouTube for an especially horrifying example.) That Rob Marshall was helming the composer’s beloved fractured fairy tale was even more distressing; as suggested by Chicago (2002) and Nine (2009), he’s the 21st century’s answer to lifeless theater-to-film transplant Joshua Logan.
Turns out that the Sondheim factor somewhat mitigates the Marshall factor, but only to a degree. Original book writer James Lapine has effectively trimmed and honed this story of fairy tale characters selfishly wishing their way to destruction and, for some, rebirth. (Most of the revisions come in the second half.) The cast is very able, though Meryl Streep, as the manipulative witch who sets much of the plot in motion, has been granted too much free reign, missing many of the laugh lines (especially in her verbose introductory “Witch’s Rap”) and muddying her character’s emotional arc with a lot of tic-heavy flailing.
Aside from one fantastical sequence in which Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) descends into the belly of the wolf (Johnny Depp) that ate her grandmother, Marshall seems to have taken a hands-off approach, letting the cast and Sondheim-Lapine’s words and melodies do all the heavy lifting. That almost provides enough pleasure: highlights include Cinderella’s (Anna Kendrick) time-stopping aria “On the Steps of the Palace,” with its profoundly searching, puzzle-piece lyrics (“But then what if he knew/Who you were when you know/That you’re not what he thinks/That he wants?”) and the hilariously vain duet “Agony” between the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) who are flabbergasted by the fairer sex. James Corden and Emily Blunt are also excellent as the Sondheim-Lapine-created Baker and his wife (both longing for a child and willing to do anything to conceive), though the tragedy that strikes them in the second half doesn’t hit very powerfully. Would that this Woods—like its twisting, tangled central locale—was much knottier.