Movie review: Into the Woods follows the path of the Broadway original

The "Disney-fication" of this Sondheim classic hasn't blunted its heart or hummability.

In the 12 years since the Oscar-winning Chicago revived the musical as a viable film genre, the transition from Broadway to screen has had widely varied results. For every Dreamgirls or Hairspray, there has been a Nine or, worse yet, Rock of Ages.

This year alone, we’ve been treated to three musical adaptations. The less said about Jersey Boys the better, and there is something about the ads for the new Annie that makes me slightly uneasy.

And then there’s the adaptation of Into the Woods. Written by Stephen Sondheim during (arguably) his most fertile period as a composer — the 1970s and 1980s — the fairy-tale musical was overshadowed by Phantom of the Opera at the Tony Awards and has since been more admired than loved by many (even some theater folk). As a result, studios have been wary to circle Sondheim properties (a notable exception was Sweeney Todd, mainly because it featured Johnny Depp bathing the proceedings in buckets of blood).

That all may change with the movie version of Woods, opening Christmas Day. Once again helmed by Marshall, there is obvious optimism that lightning will strike twice (from a financial standpoint). And with the popularity of alternative versions of traditional children’s stories at an all-time high (thank you, Frozen), the moment seems right for Sondheim’s version of events to find an audience.

The main thread of the narrative (for the uninitiated among you) concerns a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who are cursed by a witch (none other than Meryl Streep). In order to break said curse, the beleaguered parents-to-be must find a series of items — which just happen to be very important props in the stories of other fairy-tale characters (Red Riding Hood’s cape, etc., etc., etc.). Along the way, the film brushes across the notion of life being a journey and how even though we may lose ourselves along the way, we will encounter those who will help us …

Which sounds a lot cheesier than it plays. As a matter of fact, the first half is amazingly faithful to its source material (especially surprising since it's a Disney release). Fast-paced and funnier than I remember it being on stage (did I mention I saw it live?), it sets the stakes high right from the get-go. The cast, which is spirited and willing, also includes Anna Kendrick as Cinderella (yes, she can sing other things besides “Cups”), Chris Pine as an impossibly handsome Prince Charming, and Depp, again, as the smarmiest of Big Bad Wolves hitting on (i.e., hoping to eat) Little Red Riding (just don’t go to the bathroom or you’ll miss him — his on-screen time is literally five minutes).

The second act, however, is (and always has been) more problematic. It used to feel like when you came back from intermission the fun was over and it was time to “get the message” — an attempt by Sondheim (it seemed) to stretch the show out to full length.

Life, of course, eventually tells you that there is truth and wisdom in such sentiments. But in the movie it’s watered down somewhat. For instance, the reprise of “Agony,” a first-act highlight where the princes bemoan their unrequited love for fair maidens, is jettisoned here — and with it goes the notion that getting what you wish for won’t always make you happy.

This “Disney-fication” of the material is elsewhere as well. The camera flinches when showing us the death of two major characters. The softest plot point, an infidelity, is portrayed as really nothing more than a light make-out session against a tree. And why wasn’t Little Red, when retrieved from the wolf’s stomach, not covered in intestinal goo?

God forbid this shouldn’t be suitable family-friendly fare from the mouse house! One can’t help but wonder what Tim Burton, who is drawn to dark themes (Sweeney Todd), would have done with the same material. But these are quibbles, I suppose. It was quite entertaining, and I did leave the theater humming melodies from the show, which isn’t always the case with Sondheim (raise your hand if you can even remember one song from Pacific Overtures). Hummability is certainly something, if you ask me — at least when it comes to movie musicals. It might actually provide some bang at the box office — and build onto the house that Chicago revived. 

3.5 out of 5 stars
Rated PG. Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, James Cordon, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine. Opens Christmas Day.

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