Into the Woods Movie Review and Photographs: Disney Does Sondheim

The long-awaited, visually sumptuous film version of “Into The Woods” is likely to please theatergoers who are already fans of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s clever 1987 musical mashup of our culture’s best-known fairy tales, even if they have some quibbles; it will surely thrill the fans of the many stars that populate the film, a cast so uniformly first rate that Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp don’t especially stand out. We’ll have to see whether the average moviegoers, fairy tale enthusiasts, and parents looking for family entertainment will just scratch their heads.
It wouldn’t be the first time “Into The Woods” has elicited that reaction.

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“Once upon a time,” the musical and the movie begin, and we are introduced to the characters who make up the familiar tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel — as well as a new fairy tale of Sondheim and Lapine’s invention, the baker and his wife, who are cursed with childlessness by the neighbor next door, a witch.  To lift their curse, the witch tells them what they must do:

Their mission thus causes them to interact with the other fairy tale characters, such as Jack of Jack and the Beanstalk.

In the first half, the tales are told in tuneful takes and comic flourishes, such as Cinderella (Anna Kendick) deciding to leave her shoe behind, rather than in the usual tale accidentally losing it.

(The intricacy and cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics like those of “On the Steps of the Palace” helped convince aficionados like Michael Schulman first to fall in love with Into The Woods when he was 10 years old:

You think, what do you want?
You think, make a decision.
Why not stay and be caught?
You think, well, it’s a thought,
What would be his response?
But then what if he knew
Who you were when you know
That you’re not what he thinks
That he wants?

And then what if you are?)

(Sondheim slightly changes the lyrics of the song in the movie so that it is all present-tense stream-of-consciousness. Instead of “You think, what do you want?” it’s “All right, what do you want?”)

Midway through, everybody has gotten to the point of living happily ever after. But then adult-like complications and seaminess and tragedies set in — as they congregate in the woods — and we all learn that life is never “ever after” after all.

“One needn’t necessarily have read Bruno Bettelheim’s classic Freudian analysis to realize that, in remaking Grimm stories, Mr. Sondheim’s lyrics and Mr. Lapine’s book tap into the psychological mother lode from which so much of life and literature spring,” Frank Rich wrote in his review when the musical first opened on Broadway in November, 1987. “What is harder to explain,” he added, is why the show “disappoints” — neither as harrowing nor as moving as Sondheim’s previous efforts. “The concept is brilliant… the various narrative jigsaw pieces often prove either cryptic or absent.”

Still, the show ran for nearly two years and 765 performances, and was revived on Broadway in 2002, and in Central Park in 2012. An Off-Broadway production is currently in previews at the Roundabout. There are plenty of people who’ve never cottoned to this musical; others who’ve turned it into a cult favorite.

Those fearing that Disney would turn “Into The Woods” into “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” can relax. Yes, a few songs have been altered or eliminated; each felt for a good reason. But, as directed by Rob Marshall (director and choreographer of the current “Cabaret” on Broadway and the movies for “Chicago” and “Nine”), the darkness of the second half remains.

Over the years, I’ve vacillated as to which “Into The Woods” camp I belong to, cult or contrarian, depending on the latest production I saw.  The show can seem too clever, and too convoluted.  But whatever its qualities on stage, that is where it belongs, it seems to me. A show rooted in storybooks and fairy tales belongs in a medium that emphasizes language (and melody) and metaphor, and allows us to imagine the story —  as children are asked to imagine when we read these tales to them.  Movies feed us images, force us to take things more literally. That said, there are several scenes and particular performances, however, that won me over to this movie adaptation.

It would be hard to go wrong once you’ve cast Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother, Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother and Meryl Streep as the witch, and they are just as funny and good as we expect them to be. But both Chris Pine (best known for Star Trek roles) as Cinderella’s Prince Charming and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince come as comic revelations to the moviegoing public. In “Agony,” they straddle a waterfall in manly poses as if at a fashion shoot and duet together their frustration at their lovers being out of their reach.

High in her tower,
She sits by the hour,
Maintaining her hair.
Blithe and becoming and frequently humming
A lighthearted air

The princes rip open their shirts at the same time, as if in breast-beating agony, but also narcissistic boy pin-up mode.

Later Meryl Streep as the witch (slight spoiler) cuts off the long lustrous locks of her surrogate (kidnapped) daughter Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and shoves her Prince in an eel-filled swamp, blinding him; the two lovers somehow finally crawl to one another, her tears dropping into his eyes and curing his blindness. His first words: “Your hair? It looks good.” – given as hilarious a line reading as anything Magnussen did on stage in both Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and Sex With Strangers)

James Corden, who is slated to be a TV host on CBS and was so anarchically hysterical in One Man Two Guvnors, here plays the baker, with his wife portrayed by Emily Blunt, who was so memorable as the snobby assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada.”  We knew they were good in those roles, but now understand how accomplished they are as actors by seeing them play simple (but not stupid) country people so persuasively. They help steer the occasionally pitching ship that is “Into the Woods.”

But the clincher for me was near the end when Cinderella was giving advice to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, Broadway’s Annie) — the same advice the baker was giving to Jack of the beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone, the preternaturally precocious teen who played Gavroche in the latest movie version of Les Miserables) The song could not have been more melodious, nor the singing more inviting:

Mother cannot guide you.
Now you’re on your own.
Only me beside you.
Still, you’re not alone.
No one is alone. Truly.
No one is alone.

Sometimes people leave you.
Halfway through the wood.
Others may deceive you.
You decide whats good.
You decide alone.
But no one is alone….

Witches can be right, Giants can be good.
You decide what’s right you decide what’s good

I decided that “Into The Woods” is good.

Into The Woods

Directed by Rob Marshall; written by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on the musical by Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine; director of photography, Dion Beebe; edited by Wyatt Smith; production design by Dennis Gassner; costumes by Colleen Atwood; musical staging by John DeLuca and Mr. Marshall; musical score adaptation by David Krane, conducted by Paul Gemignani; orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; produced by Mr. DeLuca, Mr. Marshall, Marc Platt and Callum McDougall; released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes.

Cast: Meryl Streep (Witch), Emily Blunt (Baker’s Wife), James Corden (Baker), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince), Christine Baranski (Stepmother), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother), Johnny Depp (Wolf), Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince), MacKenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), Tammy Blanchard (Florinda), Lucy Punch (Lucinda), Frances de la Tour (Giant) and Simon Russell Beale (Baker’s Father).

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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