I confess that I have never seen the musical Into the Woods before. All my actor friends who live for musicals adore this one like they do few others, so clearly I’ve been missing out on that and The Book of Mormon. I imagine seeing the movie version probably won’t compare to seeing the stage version, but I’m not going to bother comparing them as I’m not in a position to do so. What I can tell you is that Rob Marshall’s film version of Into the Woods proved to be a lot of fun, and I loved how the musical itself is a subversive take on all those Grimm fairy tales we grew up on.
For those not familiar with Into the Woods, and I know I’m not the only one, it is set in an alternate world where various Grimm fairy tales intersect with one another. Characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella are thrown into their own adventures we have read about endlessly, and at the center of it all is The Baker (James Corden) and The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) who discover that they have been cursed with a childless existence by The Witch (Meryl Streep). To be rid of the curse, the Witch orders them to venture into the woods to find a number of objects that are infinitely important to those fairy tale characters which will allow them to have their own child, something they desperately wish for.
From the start this looks like your typical fairy tale musical where characters encounter endless obstacles but eventually come to live happily ever after. But right from the start we are reminded of certain things such as there are no adoption agencies in the land of fairy tales. Furthermore, I don’t imagine there are meant to be any childless couples in fairy tales either. While we all have a good idea of how Jack, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood will fare in their adventures, the fate of the Baker and the Baker’s Wife is never entirely certain.
Just when you think Into the Woods is going to end, it goes in another direction and becomes something far different than the usual fairy tale. It actually becomes a very thoughtful story about the responsibilities we must take, the problems and consequences which come from the wishes we make, and of the legacies we leave for our children. No wonder this musical is so well-regarded. It’s a highly irreverent take on fairy tales which introduces real world elements into a fantasy world where you don’t expect to find them.
This movie has quite the cast which succeeds in bringing Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s brilliant musical to life. When it comes to Meryl Streep, it’s long past the point where the Oscars should rename a certain award to “Best Actress who isn’t Meryl Streep.” The Witch looks like the kind of role Streep can just get lost in and have the time of her life playing, but it is a role that has a surprising number of dimensions, all of which she performs to utter perfection.
It’s also great to see Tracey Ullman here as Jack’s mother as I haven’t seen a lot of her in recent years. Heck, the last thing I remember seeing her in was John Water’s A Dirty Shame, and that came out ages ago. Her comic talents prove to be a welcome addition to Into the Woods. Hopefully we will see more of her in the future and not less.
Among my favorite performances in the movie comes from Anna Kendrick who plays a different kind of Cinderella, and I don’t just say that because this princess isn’t blonde this time around. Kendrick breathes life into her songs in a way that’s very touching, and it’s great to watch her come to realize that her Prince (a game Chris Pine) may not be all he’s cracked up to be. The fact that Kendrick is such a good singer isn’t much of a surprise as she has given us several great examples of her vocal work in Pitch Perfect.
Actually, all this talk of singing reminds me of my days in musical theatre classes back at my alma mater UC Irvine. I discovered it was one thing to get the notes right, but it’s another thing to actually sing a song, something I had a problem doing from time to time. I got so concerned with getting the notes right that I forgot to act the song as well as sing it. None of the actors in this version of Into the Woods have that problem, and they all remind you of what you have to do to pull off an excellent performance in a musical.
What about the rest of the cast? I’m thrilled to see Emily Blunt kick butt from start to finish as the Baker’s Wife, and this is the second movie in 2014 where she has kicked some serious butt (the other being Edge of Tomorrow). James Corden is wonderful as The Baker, Christine Baranski is her usual wickedly good self as Cinderella’s Stepmother, Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch succeed in making Florinda and Lucinda a pair of spoiled rotten brats you will love to hate, and Johnny Depp’s performance as the Wolf makes for a delightfully devious cameo. I also have to give credit to child actors Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone who are very memorable as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack as their jobs here are not as easy as they look.
Rob Marshall is best known for directing the Best Picture winner Chicago, and while Into the Woods doesn’t top that one, it is certainly much better than Nine which received a poor reception upon its release. The fact that any director was able to bring this particular musical to the big screen feels like a miracle, and Marshall makes it breathe onscreen in a way that lifts it above other recent movie musicals. Could any other director bring this material to life the way he did? I shudder to think.
Is this movie the best way to be introduced to Into the Woods? I honestly don’t know, but it was quite the introduction for me. I’ll let you know how it compares to a stage production of it if I ever get around to seeing it on stage.