The long-awaited film adaptation of Steven Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Into the Woods has been released, and most of the fears of Disney being involved have thankfully been proven needless. For many, Sondheim is an acquired taste, and that will likely prove to be the greatest single factor of a viewer’s enjoyment of the film.
For those of us who love music, musicals, and Sondheim, the film is a bit lightweight, but a success on many other levels. There have been some plot and song “rearrangements” which will likely bother many (yes, change is experienced as loss in so many areas of life). But what is here mostly works well, and is delightful at times.
The tone is dark for Disney but light for this story. Some of the sharper edges of the original are softened, and the bleaker aspects lightened. But director Robert Marshall (Chicago) succeeds in creating a world of combined realism and fantasy that is comfortably scary and provides a believable context for the characters and the plot. Everything is heightened as in a classic musical, but is just little more somber and a whole level creepier (but not too creepy, of course).
The central plot, for those unfamiliar with the musical, is the Witch’s (Meryl Streep) curse on a young childless couple—the Baker and his Wife—that sets in motion this twisted mélange of elements from a variety of familiar fairy tales. We see these well-known stories turned on their heads in rather dark and perverse ways. (After all, this is all brought to us by “the producer of Wicked”).
The entire story is a tightrope act, especially as adapted to film. It may be a musical based on fairy tales, but its appeal to young children is compromised by (spoiler alert) surprising deaths, adultery, mutilation, and an occasionally unnerving wicked witch. In some ways, it’s more akin to the original fairy tale stories before they were sanitized and Disneyfied.
If story is what peaks a viewer’s interest, Into the Woods may have limited appeal. Due to its being a riff on old familiar tales, it’s tasked with following familiar story lines while simultaneously having to twist or even smash them, all in a way that tells yet another good story. It succeeds, but a feel-good fable this is not.
The greatest appeal is the Sondheim score and the excellent interpretation of it, due to the musical and vocal direction, and especially to the cast. The casting is a miracle in itself, and if there were such a category in the Oscar race (which at this point there should be), this ought to be the clear winner. These are actors who sing, rather than actors with singing voices, with one slight exception. The vocal approach is Broadway rather than pop, which makes for a crisp, clear presentation of the words, and is a blessed, blessed relief from today’s pop and jukebox musicals, which re-present radio instead of the stage. A near-operatic Sondheim score is a whole other animal than those found in these kinds of films, of course, and demands a vocal dexterity and musical acting skill not seen on the screen since Les Misérables, and done better here.
Anna Kendrick, with the central role of Cinderella, is an appealing personality and something of a cult figure to her followers. The former child Broadway star knows how to act through her singing, and is a fine choice for the role. Yet, all political correctness aside, she hasn’t the classic beauty that is part of the role, and since the rest of the film plays into the handsome prince/lovely maiden scenario of most fairy tales, her casting is just a bit incongruous. (I’m bracing myself for the reaction now.)
James Corden, best known for British television and comedy, is near perfect as The Baker. Most surprising for American audiences may be Emily Blunt as his wife. She interprets Sondheim marvelously, and makes us forget that she is a film star. The two youngsters are excellent. If Daniel Huddleston as Jack reminds you of Gavroche in 2012’s Les Miz, it’s because he was Gavroche. As good as he was in terms of acting and singing a difficult score there, he is even better here. He possesses a clear, intelligent voice, and he surmounts the sizable challenge of getting a lot of words out quickly and clearly—not an easy task with Sondheim. Equally strong and talented is the equally young Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood. Her voice and musicality are years beyond her chronological age, and she sings and acts with a great maturity while still acting her age—another difficult task among younger performers.
Chris Pine brings a surprisingly lovely sound to his singing (who knew?), and the right satiric touch to a less than princely Prince. Unhappily, his big number, “Agony,” which he sings with his “brother,” Rapunzel’s Prince, (Billy Magnussen) is underplayed and poorly photographed. The song is still a comic delight, but the long shots used keep us away from the spot-on musical interpretation of the two singers. It’s a lost opportunity.
The Wolf is a short-lived part, and is played by Johnny Depp. The concept has changed (and been defanged a bit for public consumption), but Depp plays it well. Sometimes his characters, like Bill Murray’s, seem set apart and belonging to another film. That’s not the case here, and Depp’s limited musical gifts are maximized by what I can only assume is tight musical and acting direction.
Getting most of the press and all of the awards consideration is The Greatest Actress of Our Time, Meryl Streep. As always, Streep as the Witch creates a fully developed character; it seems she can’t sail through a role that’s not completely thought out and deeply felt. That sets her apart here, which works for her character. But Streep, with all her acknowledged acting and musical gifts, is still an actress who sings, not someone who can act through her singing. While she acts up a literal storm at times (and makes a virtue out of gnawing at the entire design, not just the furniture), she is still an actress who also sings, rather than an actor acting through the song. Literally all other leads here do that, and Streep is the exception. There is a gap between what some actors can do in terms of acting and singing (see Russell Crowe as the most recent painful example of that in Les Miz). All the other major and minor characters in the film don’t have that gap, but Streep still does, though she nearly succeeds in hiding it.
Streep has sung before, sometimes tolerably (Postcards from the Edge) and other times not (Mamma Mia!). Here she has been musically directed to the nth degree, and her best voice and her most sensitive musical interpretations have been brought out. She has finally been made a real singer on film. But while it’s been made as small as it possibly can be, there is still that gap between song and acting that she is likely to never close. Yet her natural voice, prodigious acting talent, and the precise musical direction given to her nearly put her in the same camp as the rest of the cast. Happily for her, being the Witch and creating such a powerful character all but obliterate any awareness of “the gap.”
Students of stage-to-film adaptation will have plenty to work with here, with all the major and minor adjustments made by Lapine, Sondheim and the powers that be at Disney. But it still stands as a musically first-rate example of what can be done in successfully bringing Broadway to the screen. For some, the plot will always be challenging, and the music a little odd. But what a glorious presentation of that music on film. May this be a start of a new trend.