For many, many musical theatre aficionados, Into The Woods is a master work, one of the best pieces by the best maestro, being Stephen Sondheim, the anti-populist, intellectual, “difficult” composer and lyricist. Into The Woods is one of his biggies, featuring excellent music and songs, strong characters, and a clever storyline that subverts a bunch of fairytales. 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 subvert it in the transition from stage to screen; all that is necessary is to flesh it out, fill the screen with it, and Marshall’s done that. Thus The Witch (Meryl Streep) can get up to all manner of creepy 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.
There is one shrieking element of total theatricality: The Wolf (Johnny Depp) doesn’t look like a wolf, he looks like Johnny Depp with some whiskers. It’s an odd choice and clashes with Steep’s effective witchiness, the giant’s giantism, and the cow, which is mainly played by a real cow. Depp comes and goes early and is pretty much forgotten by the end, which is just as well; his episode is the film’s least compelling.
The best character is Cinderella, and Anna Kendrick is sublime. 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. She’s a perfect Cinderella.
Also terrific is Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife. She outshines The Baker, James Cordon, and fans will be bummed to see one of his big numbers cut. 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. It doesn’t comment on our age, doesn’t offer a bold new perspective, and doesn’t feature any particular “star” performance. But if it only exists for Sondheim fans, it exists well for them. Supposedly the man himself is happy with it, and so he should be. It treats his work with complete reverence, respect, and love.