“Anything can happen in the woods,” sings Prince Charming in the lavish adaptation of the multi-award winning Broadway hit, Into the Woods. Many years ago, the venerable literary scholar Northrop Frye expressed the same opinion about the forest to which the Athenian lovers flee to escape tyrannical parents and romantic frustration in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Either by their reading or their instincts, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine chose the forest venue for their re-telling of the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, along with their creation, the story of The Baker and His Wife. They all end up encountering each other in the woods in their pursuit of their wishes only to find out that their wishes have a way of turning out badly.
Director Rob Marshall, perhaps best known for singlehandedly reviving the movie musical genre with his 2002 adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago,” is the master of the revels again, assembling a cast of A-list stars of film, television and theater to enact the stories, starting with the amazing Meryl Streep as the Witch who starts most of the trouble, joined by rising Hollywood stars Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife, Chris Pine as Prince Charming and that veteran crowd-pleaser Johnny Depp as The Wolf. Imports from Broadway and television include Tony winner James Corden; Tony nominee Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince; Tony and Emmy-winner Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother; and seven-time Emmy winner, Tracy Ullman as Jack’s mother. And—surprise!—they can all sing quite well (who knew?)
The film version allows for an elaborate forest setting and digital effects that would be impossible on stage: the small tornado that whisks the Witch away from her terrified listeners, the enormous beanstalk for Jack to climb, the birds who help their friend Cinderella gather up the lentils that her stepmother had thrown into the fireplace to try to keep her from attending the Prince’s festival, Red Riding Hood’s and her grandmother’s journey into the belly of the wolf and many more fascinating effects. The digital imaging was provided by the same people who worked on “The Hobbit” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” released earlier last year. The film was shot at Shepperton Studios and in many woods, castles, and gardens in England. Obviously, since Disney Studios was involved, no expense was spared to create a dark and magical setting.
One motif that is enhanced in the film version is the power of motherhood—for both good and evil. As the Witch says at one point to defend her decision to lock up her daughter Rapunzel in a tower, “I was only trying to be a good mother!” Cinderella’s mother has died, but her daughter often visits her grave (in the woods, of course) to seek her advice and to be provided with a suitable gown to wear to Prince Charming’s festival (Sorry, no Fairy Godmother or pumpkin coach this time). Cinderella’s stepmother’s cruelty is shown in her treatment of Cinderella and in the act of cutting off parts of her daughter’s feet so that can fit the golden slipper that Cinderella abandoned on the steps of the palace (Sorry, no glass either). The Baker’s Wife becomes pregnant. Jack’s mother constantly ridicules him, calling him a fool. The giant that Jack encounters at the top of the beanstalk is a lady who draws him up to her “giant breast,” but who returns to avenge the killing of her husband. Red Riding Hood is sent into the woods to visit her grandmother. The Witch’s ugliness results from a curse her mother placed on her.
To emphasize the mothers’ importance, the film version has eliminated the role of The Baker’s Father—also known as The Mysterious Man—who is the narrator in the theatrical version. His poignant duet with his son, “No More” is also removed. The fathers of Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood are nowhere to be found either. Death also plays a role in the plot, with references to Cinderella’s dead mother and the death of at least eight of the characters, including (spoiler alert!) Jack’s cow, Milky White—at least for a while.
The performances are as exciting and moving as one could hope for. Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick are particularly effective as the vivid protagonists with the largest amount of screen time and the widest range of emotions. James Corden, a brilliant comic actor who stole the 2012 Best Actor Tony from Philip Seymour Hoffman, no less, is somewhat underused in his role as The Baker, a not particularly funny character, but he is so darn likeable, who cares? And that perennial crowd-pleaser, Johnny Depp, makes for a creepiest Wolf ever. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen make excellent comic material out of their own good looks in their duet, “Agony,” bemoaning their inability to reach the ladies with whom they have fallen in love.
And it may be our only opportunity to witness the great Meryl Streep overacting in her first song in the film, with her especially ugly appearance and gestures which might remind one of Disney’s Cruella deVille. However, she seems to be doing so quite deliberately and having a great deal of fun with it. But when she is transformed later into a strikingly glamorous woman, she radiates grace and beauty as only she can. And she shines both in the ballad she sings to Rapunzel, “Stay With Me, and her terrifying aria of doom and destruction, “The Last Midnight.”
Needless to say, Sondheim’s nimble lyrics, inventive rhymes and gorgeous music get the full treatment in the orchestrations and the delivery.
One is left to wonder if the Brothers Grimm had any idea that the folks tales they had collected from the common people of Germany would turn out to be major archetypes in Western culture, much less the makings of a miraculous musical for all ages.