Into The Woods' Incredible Cast Saves The Film From Some Questionable Calls.
Into The Woods.
Director: Rob Marshall.
Writers: James Lapine (screenplay); Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine (musical)
Cast: Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, James Corden, Johnny Depp.
Playing At: Wide.
Adapting a musical to the big screen isn't easy. Isn't that obvious at this point?
There's just a certain — and pardon my cliche phrasing here — magic that exists between the performers and their audience in the live theater. It's a palpable energy that needs to be handled with some serious care when transitioned to the projector.
Director Rob Marshall's actually has some success on this front. Well, some: His Chicago was great; unfortunately, his Nine was a bomb.
Now his sights have been set on Into The Woods, a musical that puts something of a twist on classic fairy tales. And the source material — courtesy of Stephen Sondheim, one of the greatest in the Broadway world — is solid. Sondheim's music and lyrics are intricate, funny, and, well, pretty much anyone who's anyone on Broadway has been in a Sondheim show. His are the gigs everyone wants.
And, surely, that desire carries over to Hollywood. It certain does here, as Hollywood's finest fill each of the film's familiar roles. Anna Kendrick plays Cinderella, who wants nothing more than to get out from under the thumb of her Christine Baranski-played mother and to go to the ball hosted by the Prince, as played by Chris Pine. Les Miserables' Daniel Huttlestone plays Jack, who has to sell his precious milky white cow so he and his Tracey Ullman-played mother can eat. The Baker, played by soon-to-be Late Late Show host James Corden, just wants a child with his wife, played by Emily Blunt. The only real newcomer here is Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, and she gets the honor of playing off of Johnny Depp's Wolf.
Each of these characters has issues of their own, and the cast sells those situations well enough. Of course, their plans all unravel when the Witch — played by Meryl Streep, naturally — curses the lot of them, leaving her neighbors in the Baker and his wife to pick up the pieces as they intertwine with the others.
And as they do, because this is a musical, they sing. Wisely, Marshall cast actors who actually do that, too. To a tee, these actors keep up with the difficulty of Sondheim's syncopated arrangements, a number of which have been re-imagined so as to keep the musical nerds intrigued. “Agony,” in particular, is an absolutely hilarious showstopper, and, for my money, this film's rendition of “On The Steps of the Palace” is my favorite yet.
Other changes are more curious: Marshall's film takes more cues from the original production than 2002 revival; several songs were cut, including the ever-delightful “Agony (Reprise)”; and some subplots were dropped for time's sake. The second half of the film suffers as a result — and that's a real shame, too, as the first half of the film completely soars with fun. There's just a big tonal shift by the time the second half of the film rolls around, and most of that comes at the expense of the original musical's delicious dark undertones, which have been watered down to keep this a more family-friendly film. Tragedies that happen to characters over the course of the film either happen off screen or too quickly for the audience to feel the full weight. The emotional weight the story hinges on just doesn't feel earned.
Still, the ensemble cast is fun to watch. They bring a real vivacity to their roles. Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Streep (Mamma Mia!) have already proven in the past that they have the chops for movie musicals and they score here, too. Streep is especially brilliant, as if there was ever any doubt. More surprising is Blunt's wonderful turn as the Baker's wife. She brings a strength to the character that doesn't always show on stage and sets herself up to be a surefire fan favorite.
With elements like these, musical nerds like me will be pleased enough. But they'll be a little conflicted, too: No, this isn't the worst adaptation to come to the big screen, but it doesn't break any new ground for movie musicals, either. It just sort of entertains adequately. Push through the mess of a third act, and you'll arrive on the other side aware that some fun moments did, in fact, come to pass.
But, mostly, Into The Woods just confirms what we all already know: Adapting a musical to the big screen isn't easy.