Fairy tale revisionism has run rampant across screens of late, so with the marketplace heavily saturated, there’s no better time to revive Stephen Sondheim’s subversive musical “Into the Woods,” about a convergence of fairy tale characters discovering what lies on either side of happily ever after. Sondheim’s playful lyrics and rich humor ensure that his play will stand out among its popular peers, making this the perfect candidate to shake the fairy tale genre out of its doldrums. Director Rob Marshall then takes this inspiration and creates something very powerful with his smart, stunningly cast adaptation.
Credit for the clever plotting and bouncy, often darkly comic music must go to Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the stage version’s book and this movie’s screenplay, but musical vet Rob Marshall requires his fair share of credit, too. In addition to the superb cast he assembled, Marshall strikes a rather harmonious chord between stage and screen here.
He’s tried to meld the two before, successfully in “Chicago,” where the staginess fit the theatricality of the big numbers, and less successfully in “Nine,” where the romance of Rome seemed drained and falsified, but never has Marshall so beautifully captured a sense of the stage on screen than here in Into the Woods. There’s a sweeping majestic quality about the fairy tale world he presents here that feels widely cinematic, but there’s also an intimacy to the shot composition and a sparsity of effects work that keeps at least one foot of the production planted firmly on the stage.
Watching Marshall and the cast capture the speed and energy and wit of Sondheim’s often overlapping lyrics with cameras and edits proves quite an invigorating experience. Marshall juggles the multiple pieces present in nearly every number quite beautifully and comfortably, so transitions are smooth and lively instead of being clumsy and jarring.
Of course, the cast helps immensely. James Corden and Emily Blunt are sweetly delightful as the Baker and his Wife, an innocent couple unable to have a child due to a curse placed on their household by a vindictive Witch (Meryl Streep, on fire here). Just as the Witch explains the origin of the curse, she also offers the Baker and his Wife an out. If they can procure four specific items before the rare blue moon arrives in a few nights time, the Witch will remove the curse and all will be well.
Thus begins the story that then intertwines several different fairy tale characters through the items the Witch has requested. The Baker and his Wife are tasked with nabbing the cloak of Red Riding Hood (a tremendous Lilla Crawford), the shoe of Cinderella (a charming Anna Kendrick), the cow of beanstalk-traversing Jack (a strapping Daniel Huttlestone), and the hair of Rapunzel (a soulful Mackenzie Mauzy).
This leads to all sorts of humorous hijinks since the items have to be stolen or at least bartered for. The Baker’s attempts to first thieve the cloak are especially funny in their awkwardness, especially when you consider the Baker wants to be a father and in an attempt to achieve that goal, here he is stealing from a child.
The familiar plotlines for each famous character unfold in their usual way (with Grimm brothers input, not Disney’s, though somewhat ironically, the movie is a Disney production), all the while intersecting and sometimes colliding with the quest of the Baker and his Wife. Streep’s Witch makes her occasional appearances to drive things along through encouragement and sarcasm and the character proves as funny and lively as she was in the show’s stage version. She gets some great lines, mostly sung, and provides plenty of laughs before switching it up and hitting a tender note with her heartbreaking big number “Stay with Me”, delivered as a parent’s plea to her child.
Parenthood and the fears of making bad decisions, as well as the consequences of them, is a major theme here and it’s that mixture of comedy and moving drama that is so crucial to the success of Into the Woods. It’s also the kind of thing that seems Marshall would struggle with. But perhaps it’s the Sondheim influence or the strength of the well-suited cast, because the emotion is communicated effectively and eclectically, with every major character getting their due.
The seriousness of the themes (which also includes loss, abandonment, adultery, and revenge) is not glossed over, but rather given the weight it deserves while also maintaining the vibrant comic spirit that spoofs everything from Red Riding Hood’s basket of treats to Jack’s love of his cow. Marshall manages to effortlessly switch between the different tones of drama and comedy while always keeping the pace on point. It’s a complex task and yet he makes the experience feel smooth and confident in its progression.
It can’t be said enough how much Into the Woods owes its strength and imagination to Sondheim, but crediting the artist behind the songs will always be a given when discussing stage-to-screen musical adaptations. And good music hardly guarantees a solid cinematic treatment, as was perhaps most recently evidenced by Tom Hooper’s ugly, disastrous “Les Misérables” flick a couple years back.
So it seems that while Marshall has had a lot of help along the way, he really has taken the stage version and given it a lovely, limber new life. There are a lot of pieces in play here and the revolving sense of humor (from dark to light and back again) is further complicated by the touching dramatic spirit of the story. Fairy tales have long been sources of great inspiration and invention and that tradition continues here, with a wink and a tear and a meaningfully modern voice.