For many musical theatre types, Into The Woods is a master work, one of the best pieces by Stephen Sondheim, the anti-populist, intellectual, “difficult” composer and lyricist. Into The Woods is one of his biggies, featuring great music and songs, strong characters, and a fun storyline that subverts a bunch of fairy tales. Huge in scale – there’s a witch, a giant, a castle or two, a cow, magic beans, a wolf, and an awful lot of woods – it’s long been ripe for cinematic treatment.
Rob Marshall’s adaptation is straightforward and respectful. Since the material itself is slyly subversive, there’s no need to do anything other than beef it up to a cinematic level, and that’s what Marshall does. Thus The Witch (Meryl Streep) can get up to all manner of creepy (CGI) manoeuvres, the beans can burst skyward as a thundering, towering beanstalk, the giant can look like a giant and her footsteps can cause the shattering of a castle tower.
Why, then, was this choice made: The Wolf (Johnny Depp) doesn’t look like a wolf, he looks like Johnny Depp with some whiskers. It’s an odd choice – a bad choice – and clashes with Streep’s effective witchiness, the giant’s gigantism, and the cow, which is mainly played by a real cow. Rumour has it that is was Depp’s choice, and I’m going to go with that rumour.
The best character is Cinderella, and Anna Kendrick is sublime (and, as always, hot). She’s got a terrific song on the castle steps that is full of humour and nuance. Kendrick is bagging all the great singing-on-screen roles, from her franchise (Pitch Perfect) to her upcoming two-hander The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s excellent musical. She deserves to. She sings beautifully and you believe her singing, even as she sings along to her own recordings (as they did on this one, as opposed to the “live” singing of Les Miserables) you can see her lower lip trembling in vibrato. I love Anna Kendrick!
Also terrific is Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife. She outshines The Baker, James Corden, who is an open-mouthed wide-eyed actor, in that what he does of a scene is open his mouth and widen his eyes. I never buy him on screen. Fans will be bummed that The Baker has lost a big number. Mostly, though, the songs are all there, unlike the recent Annie, which bombed the Dresden out of its own source material. Meryl’s fine – in that Meryl Streep way of “fine” meaning typically excellent – but my Musical Theatre Expert, who accompanied me to the screening I saw, said that she didn’t own the role – and the singing – as it has been owned by Bernadette Peters on stage and in a famous PBS filmed stage recording. My Musical Theatre Expert did single out young Daniel Huttlestone, as Jack (as in, “…and the beanstalk”) and even applauded after one of his big numbers.
Everything is very competent and it’s all good fun. It doesn’t seem to have any raison d’être except that, perhaps, someone finally got the money together to make it (the musical opened in 1987). It doesn’t comment on our age, doesn’t offer a bold new perspective, and doesn’t feature any particular “star” performance. It’s just a straight-up version of a good musical. If you’re into musicals, you’re probably already there.