‘Into the Woods’ Review: Stephen Sondheim Survives His Trek to Big Screen

By  · Published on December 23rd, 2014

Walt Disney Pictures

In Stephen Sondheim’s career packed with beloved musicals, none compare to Into the Woods in terms of sheer popularity. It’s one of the most-performed productions on an amateur level and has been revived in different forms on and off Broadway countless times. It’s also dark and subversive, a merciless fairy tale satire that subverts the form through sly sexuality and plenty of horrific moments.

This is not, in other words, a great candidate for a big screen adaptation under the Disney banner. There’s an uncomfortable, inherent tension between the corporation that popularized Cinderella and Rapunzel and material that undercuts the mythology. This caused great concern in the run-up to the film’s release, which theater buffs latching on to every possible deviation from the source as well as reported statements Sondheim made implying that the film had been toned down, which he later took back.

I’m not an Into the Woods expert. I couldn’t delineate the precise ways Rob Marshall’s film remains faithful to and deviates from its source. I can, however, confirm that the Sondheim spirit is absolutely and unmistakably here, probably in no small part thanks to the fact that book writer James Lapine crafted the screenplay. This is not a case of Marshall expanding a relatively intimate musical to his characteristically grand, stylized canvas. Rather, it’s a filmmaker and, by extension, an entire studio smartly and vividly understanding that genius need only be translated to a different medium, not tampered with.

The story brings together an assortment of classic characters – including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) – in a woods in which they cross paths with a witch (Meryl Streep) who has cursed a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). The couple will forever remain barren unless they can produce three random objects from the fairytale characters for the witch in a matter of days.

The plot is, as ever, immaterial. It is fluff crafted for the simple purpose of getting these characters to repeatedly cross paths inside the dense woods full of twisting trees and other perilous obstacles lurking amid the brush. The metaphor remains potent: the woods represent life, with all its dark and unexpected twists and turns. They’re filled with temptations and dangers, bringing together individuals from disparate worlds and backgrounds, with motives that shift and change and actions undertaken that directly contradict their values.

Sondheim wants us to consider our own morality, to weigh the relative cost of achieving happiness against the often uncomfortable steps that must be taken to get there. Take the baker and his wife, for example. Their motives are pure: they want a child. But to get there, to appease the witch, they’re forced to try and snatch Red Riding Hood’s cape, scam Jack out of his beloved cow and steal Cinderella’s shoe.

At the same time, this adaptation very much retains Into the Woods’ riff on the sadistic undercurrents of these classic bedtime stories. Red must deal with the perverted howls of the wolf (Johnny Depp, in full-on Johnny Depp mode, if you know what I mean), who licks his lips while sizing up her “pink and plump” flesh. Once Jack discovers his magic beanstalk, he happily robs the giants in the sky and causes a death. Cinderella is pure and innocent on one hand but also a master manipulator, leading the otherwise philandering prince (Chris Pine) on a fruitless chase through the woods night after night.

Again, there might be an element of Disneyfication here. Into the Woods scholars will surely weigh in. But Marshall, a theater guy who has been nominated for multiple Tony Awards, clearly respects the sanctity of the material. He’s got enough in that is offbeat and provocative that the movie feels like an honest treatment of its source. The filmmaker also smartly respects the inherent stage-bound nature here. The woods are a giant soundstage set and treated as such, without muddying things up with an abundance of close-ups, ala Les Miserables, or other needless innovations. The artificiality helps here, giving the story an old-fashioned quality that enhances the caliber of the satire.

The movie is also exceedingly well cast, with actors who capably handle Sondheim’s considerable verbiage and manage to imbue sensitivity and emotion into lyrics such as “Rooting through my rutabaga, raiding my arugula and ripping up my rampion.” Pine is a particular surprise as the rapscallion prince, singing well and achieving a sort of arch comic vainness.

So don’t panic Sondheim buffs. Despite everything stacked up against this long-awaited adaptation, it works. The third act feels tacked on and shallow, there’s a limit on just how much you can invest in the story on a visceral level and the Depp routine is getting old, but let’s count our blessings here. Things could’ve been so much worse.

The Upside: A quality adaptation that retains the sharpness of Sondheim’s work and doesn’t feel excessively toned down; Chris Pine

The Downside: The third act is a boring distraction from the story

On the Side: An Into the Woods adaptation has been in the works since at least the early ’90s, with an impressive assortment of big names including Steve Martin, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan reportedly attached at one point or another.

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