It has taken 27 years for Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical — Into the Woods — to reach the screen. I wish I could say it was totally worth the wait.
But under the direction of Rob Marshall (Chicago and Nine), this megaton Disney production arrives as a mixed blessing with highlights built around Meryl Streep’s performance as The Witch, Anna Kendrick’s turn as Cinderella, Emily Blunt’s portrayal of a baker’s wife and a couple of signature musical numbers.
PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
A mash-up of a story incorporates fragments of various, iconic fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Shards from these stories are united by the tale of a baker and his wife. The couple tries to gather ingredients needed to break a spell (cast by the witch, of course) that has left them childless.
Credit Marshall with getting the musical off to a rousing start. The opening introduces the major characters in lively, amusing fashion before all head for the woods on a variety of personal quests that sometimes turn sluggish.
For the most part, the movie is well cast. Under a ton of make-up, Streep brings life to every scene in which she appears. James Corden and Blunt are fine as the baker and his wife, and Kendrick makes for a somewhat different Cinderella, a young woman who isn’t entirely star struck by the handsome prince (Chris Pine).
Pine, by the way, brings self-absorbed superficiality to the role of the prince, complementing the movie’s desire to upend as many fairy-tale stereotypes as possible.
A high point arrives when Red Riding Hood meets the wolf (Johnny Depp made up like a predatory Zoot-suiter). The wolf leers after Red Riding, displaying a lecherous streak. Depp licks his chops, and then vanishes from the screen with a demonstrative howl.
Carefully designed by Dennis Gassner, Into the Woods has a lavish quality that Marshall supplements with special effects when necessary.
The singing — a key in a musical without big dance numbers — seems mostly up to snuff, although I have no standard of comparison, never having seen Into the Woods on stage.
The movie’s screenplay — by James Lapine — reportedly includes a bit of compression and the filing down of a few rough edges, but I leave all that for Sondheim enthusiasts to sort out.
Into the Woods increasingly darkens as it goes against the grain of the original fairy tales. A faux happily ever-after ending is followed by a lengthy final act which goes to great pains to subvert expectations and which, alas, tested my patience.
I found myself longing for this one to conclude before it had worked its way through all of its 124-minute length, but — in fairness - I’d have to say that Into the Woods seemed acceptable, if not a candidate for movie musical greatness.
What’s missing? Goosebumps and a sustained sense that we’re watching something that gets beyond its ever-present cleverness.