BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS Is a Wish Come True for Fans of Both Theatre and Film
For many musical theatre fans, a beloved Broadway musical, fairly faithfully, adapted into a stunning big screen success, is their most treasured of Christmas wishes. In recent years, however, the holidays have brought us near misses (LES MISERABLES), underwhelming disappointments (RENT), and outright abominations (NINE). However, Disney's INTO THE WOODS, opening nationwide on Christmas Day, is those musical theatre fans' wish fulfilled. With a cast of Hollywood A-listers and Broadway alums, all of whom prove more than capable of handling Stephen Sondheim's uniquely intricate and intellectual music and lyrics, this very well might be the most effectively adapted movie musical of the past half century. The lush orchestrations, the gorgeous settings, and the spectacular cast had a smile plastered on my face from the film's first note until its last.
INTO THE WOODS examines what happens to some of the Brothers Grimm's most familiar characters after their fairy tales end. By journeying into the woods, they all get their wishes, but what becomes of their lives afterward. Is it happily ever after for all; or are their consequences for getting everything that you have ever wished for?
It should go without saying that compressing a two and a half hour musical into a neatly packaged 120 minute film required some editing. For those familiar with the stage production, you will likely observe that a number of characters, songs, and scenes have been deftly removed, and you might notice a few key and lyric changes as well. However, none of the adjustments, overseen by Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who also wrote the screenplay), undermines the piece's message or integrity. Though there was a bit of controversy over rumored, more substantial, plot changes this summer, each and every change made was prudent, effective, and appropriate.
Those changes likely seemed even more fitting due to the magical cast assembled by director Rob Marshall, a five-time Tony nominee and the director of CHICAGO, the last musical to win a Best Picture Oscar. The talented group is a mix of big-name Hollywood stars and rising Broadway favorites, each able to imbue their character, through both word and song, with the pathos necessary to make the darkly comic fairy tale work.
As she always is, Meryl Streep is the film's headliner, as The Witch. Based on her performance in the film version of MAMMA MIA! I was a bit apprehensive about her ability to pull off the vocally demanding role. Does Streep have the wondrous voice of original Broadway Witch Bernadette Peters? Of course not, and to expect her to have would be foolish; but what she does have is a surprisingly versatile voice, and the most captivating command of the character that I have ever seen. Her "Stay with Me" not only made me feel sorry for The Witch, as Peters' has done many times, but for the first time, her rendition brought to life the pain and loneliness that her cursed existence has left her with. Additionally, once The Witch makes the transition into the person who she truly is, Streep looks unbelievably gorgeous, blue hair and all. This performance is worthy of all of the award nominations that our greatest living actor will undoubtedly receive.
Tony-winner James Corden and Golden Globe-winner Emily Blunt play the film's emotional center as The Baker and his wife. Their quest to fetch a bizarre set of ingredients for The Witch is what binds all of the disjointed fairytales together. From his film and television work, and on stage in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, we knew that Corden could sing, but his Baker makes me even more disappointed that he won't be playing Pseudolus on Broadway, as he instead is taking over CBS's THE LATE LATE SHOW.
It was Blunt, however, that is the film's vocal revelation. Perhaps best known for starring opposite Streep in THE DEVIL WEAR PRADA, she is as an actress of equally striking beauty and talent, and she more than holds her own with her more musically accomplished castmates. Her voice is occasionally more clipped and popish than we are used to in the role, but never once did it impact my appreciation of her performance. Like Streep, Blunt will likely receive her share of deserved praise for her performance.
The one major casting disappointment is Johnny Depp as The Wolf. As should have been made clear by his less than impressive vocals in the SWEENEY TODD adaptation, Depp just does not possess the chops to pull the part off appropriately. And his Tex Avery-inspired Zoot suit actually made me miss the Wolf's original anatomically correct costume.
Rounding out the megastars in the cast are Tony and Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick and STAR TREK Captain, Chris Pine, as Cinderella and her prince. Kendrick, who has made a name for herself as Hollywood's go-to musical girl, is as neurotically charming as Sondheim's Cinderella should be. Though she takes fewer pratfalls than her stage counterpart, she is as funny as she is conflicted. I didn't think that the role carried nearly as much weight on film as it does on stage, but the triple-platinum recording artist took full advantage of every note and syllable that she was given. Her rendition of "No One Is Alone" is the most poignant and heartwarming moment of the film.
Likewise, Pine, along with Rapunzel's Prince (Tony-nominee Billy Magnussen), provides the comedic highlight of the movie. While I don't want to spoil the ludicrousy of the scene, every moment in their duet, "Agony," is brilliantly staged and performed. The scene reminded me of bits from Golden Age comedy teams like Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, and Kelly and O'Connor.
The rest of the main ensemble provides strong supporting performances as well, including from Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mother), two-time Tony winner Christine Baranski (Cinderella's Stepmother), Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), and MacKenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel).
These final three characters supply the film with some of the most noteworthy departures from the stage version. Though I would have preferred that Little Red and Jack were a bit older, and therefore able to play the more sexual awakening undertones of the characters, I understood the decision to keep the actors age-appropriate for a film version, where naturalism (even in a fairy tale) is more of a necessity. After all, it was just two and a half weeks ago when a mini-uproar broke out over the casting of twentysomething Newsies as PETER PAN LIVE!'s Lost Boys. The casting did change some aspects of the story, especially the interaction between Little Red and the Wolf, but, other than the bizarre scenes inside The Wolf's stomach, I was able to appreciate these as completely new versions of the characters, performed by two incredibly talented young actors.
Additionally, Rapunzel received a new outcome as well. As I was watching, I couldn't help but feel that this might have been the one moment when Disney's involvement in the film had a bit more decision-making influence than it should have. Surely Rapunzel, a character with a popular Disney musical of her own, couldn't suffer the same fate on film as she does on stage. With her conclusion changed, it makes The Witch's motivation in her final moments on screen a bit muddled and less heart-wrenching than they should be. However, the opportunity to see more of the wonderful Mauzy and Magnussen together was a welcome byproduct.
For the most part, where the INTO THE WOODS film falters, is in the same places that the stage production does. As it is on stage, the movie's ending was somewhat anticlimactic. While there was still resolution, the way "Children Will Listen" unfolds on screen does not create the same symmetrical, or emotionally cathartic, closure that the stage show's does. Again, I understand the decision to modify the ending for film, as the musical's "Finale" would be a bit precious for movie audiences; but I think it somewhat undermines the impact that the ending of a piece this beautiful should have. INTO THE WOODS is a musical wrought with messages and subtext, and I was a bit disappointed that the film's ending didn't do more to bring those more to the surface.
The result is that I left the theater thoroughly pleased with what I had seen. I appreciated the loving touches that paid homage to the stage version, including underscoring certain scenes with songs not included in the film, and I was floored by the immensely talented cast who delivered stunning performance after stunning performance; but I didn't walk out with the same level of excitement as I did when I left LES MIS two years ago.
Now, let me be clear, LES MISERABLES is nowhere near the movie INTO THE WOODS is. I believe that INTO THE WOODS has made the best transition from stage to screen of any musical since THE SOUND OF MUSIC in 1965 (including classics like CABARET, GREASE, and CHICAGO; the former two differing greatly from their stage versions), but LES MIS was simply a better film than the sum of its parts; where, despite the phenomenal performances, an expert script, and sweeping orchestrations, INTO THE WOODS never captured my imagination like a story of love, magic, and danger should.
All that being typed, I will still be back at the theater to see it again on Christmas Day, as there are so many wonderful moments in these woods, any theatre or film fan would be foolish to miss them.
Check out the trailer below:
Disney's INTO THE WOODS, starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, MacKenzie Mauzy, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, and more is rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
Have you journeyed INTO THE WOODS? What did you make of the film's changes from the beloved stage version? Did you agree with my take on the film's place in movie musical history? Let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. Also, make sure to follow @BWWMoviesWorld for all of the biggest news from the world of movies.
1) James Corden, Emily Blunt, and Meryl Streep: Walt Disney Studios
2) James Corden and Emily Blunt: Walt Disney Studios
3) Anna Kendrick: Walt Disney Studios
4) Meryl Streep and MacKenzie Mauzy: Walt Disney Studios