BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS is a Phenomenal Adaptation of the Classic Stephen Sondheim Musical
It's no surprise Walt Disney Pictures has decided to bank on the popularity of the movie musical following the box office success of Les Miserables - what is a surprise is how successfully they've done so.
Their first foray into the live-action movie musical, Into the Woods is everything you'd want from a movie musical - but doesn't compromise any of the brilliance of the original even if some modifications were made to fit the medium.
Director Rob Marshall helms this adaptation featuring an all-star cast. He brought on board James Lapine, the original book writer to adapt his original work for the silver screen, and Stephen Sondheim himself to write new lyrics and music. The new music ultimately didn't make it into the final cut - but according to reliable sources it will appear on the DVD release.
Missing from the film are the songs "Ever After" and "No More" - the latter being a personal favourite of mine. While they are missing from the film - they aren't missed. While both songs work brilliantly on stage, they would have brought the action to a grinding halt during the climax of the movie. Both songs do appear as underscoring during the film.
I'll admit when I first heard Meryl Streep had been cast as The Witch - I groaned. I had lost faith that she could appear in and not ruin a movie musical after the debacle that was Mamma Mia! I'm extremely pleased to report that I was wrong, and Streep is brilliant and unique in her role. Her witch is quirky, unpredictable, and terrifying. Streep sings gloriously in this picture, and delivers everything from beautiful, legato singing lines sung flawlessly all the way to a high belt with the perfect amount of vibrato. For me, this performance is an obvious Oscar contender if she's nominated as a Supporting Actress - taking into consideration the fact that she has so much screen time.
Anna Kendrick will charm audiences as Cinderella, who learns you must be careful what you wish for as a result of a failed marriage to a prince who goes on sexual escapades in the woods, notably with Emily Blunt's character, The Baker's Wife. Kendrick is a natural in this genre, and is dominating the movie musical market with starring roles in Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2, The Last Five Years, and Into the Woods. Audiences have heard her sing with her well known pop-belt, but in this film we hear her use her upper register; she does this so successfully one might suspect she's been classically training for this moment for years.
Blunt is charismatic in her role as The Baker's Wife. Her performance reminds me greatly of Joanna Gleason's characterization of the same part, and yet is it is also very unique, quirky, and appealing in its own way.
Lilla Crawford, a Broadway veteran at the tender age of 13, brings to life the character Little Red. Crawford is an excellent performer, and is well suited to the part. Her performance is a little rigid at times, but is overall good enough to win over audiences. Daniel Huttlestone plays Jack, the boy who's sent to market to sell the cow. He ends up trading the cow for magic beans, which lead him to the land of the giants. Huttlestone makes the most of the material given to him, and his rendition of the song "Giants in the Sky" is first-rate. He shines in dramatic moments, as well as comedic ones - and his energy pops off of the screen.
I didn't particularly enjoy Johnny Depp's characterization of The Wolf. His entire, yet small sequence, made me extremely uncomfortable for reasons I couldn't quite articulate while watching the film. While at first glance there's nothing particularly, explicitly sexual within his scene - his characterization reminded too much of a child predator rather than a wolf on the hunt. This may have been the director's intention, but either way, I would have liked to see this particular sequence staged in the movie closer to how it had been in the original stage show.
Cinderella's and Rapunzel's princes are played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen respectively. Both princes share a wonderful song titled "Agony" in which they discuss how awful life is because the one thing they want is the only thing out of reach (the princesses). The sequence was filmed on location at a real waterfall and is hilarious, visually stunning, and the singing top-notch. At my screening of the film the audience broke into thunderous applause and hooting during the song.
James Corden is fine as The Baker, but I felt like he lacked a sincerity that the role genuinely required. Corden is an excellent comedian and in those moments, his talents shine brightly. However, the story of The Baker is essentially one of loss - and the plight The Baker faces in raising a child as a single parent and never knowing his father doesn't come through in this version as it does in the original stage production. Part of this may be due to the film cutting the role of the narrator/The Baker's father altogether - which may have helped move the plot along, but taken away some of the necessary heartache that this story needs to remain grounded.
One cannot mention Into the Woods without discussing the score. Sondheim is considered one of the greatest living composers, but is sometimes cited as not being "hummable enough." I consider Into the Woods to be one of his more contemporary scores, which features many popular songs including "No One is Alone." Sondheim's masterpiece of a score , adapted by David Krane creates a giant, lush sound. Krane has collaborated with Marshall before, writing dance music and more on the Oscar-winning Chicago film adaptation, as well as Disney's made-for-TV production of Annie. Krane's arrangements are masterpieces themselves, with many of the instrumental tracks on the movie's soundtack being among my favourite.
Rob Marshall has crafted an excellent film for all ages. It is an excellent introduction to more sophisticated musical theatre - or a great medium in which to revisit a familiar classic. If you're looking for an engaging, family-friendly film to take in on Christmas day, this is the right choice for you. If you're looking for a feel-good holiday film, be forewarned this just might not be your cup of tea.
Into the Woods opens in cinemas nationwide on Christmas day, December 25th.
Follow Alan Henry on Twitter at @alanhenryTO.