REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

Into the Woods

Marshall does still allow for the actors to cut up and have some fun, though; it would be a shame to gather all this talent and then smother them in self-seriousness.  Meryl Streep, who plays the witch that sets the story in motion, is blissfully unhinged without reaching the almost parodic heights of “Mamma Mia!”  While letting her freak flag fly more than usual, Streep also manages to illuminate a powerful inner struggle between helping others, protecting the one she loves, and saving herself.

She forces the Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), the only two characters in the story who come with out pre-attached iconography, to embark on a journey so they can gain a child and she can regain her youth.  Along the way, the couple’s path intersects with such recognizable figures as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack (the tyke who planted the beanstalk).  Of the two, Blunt is far more interesting and nuanced; she grapples with her many roles of spouse, female, and potentially a mother.

The others each have their own edge of subversion or intrigue.  Chris Pine, who plays the prince taught to be charming rather than sincere, is a farcical delight as he revels in mocking the ultra-masculine facades he has donned when playing Captain Kirk and Jack Ryan.  Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella, only seen leaving the ball and never partaking in its festivities, gets a remarkable amount of agency.  Even the precocious Jack and Little Red have to come to terms with the harshness of the world.

There are still lessons to learn and happily ever afters to celebrate in “Into the Woods,” but they are distinctly less conventional than any other iterations of these characters in the Disney vault.  The authenticity and the honesty might not be momentous, yet they feel important nonetheless.  One can only hope that, as the final number states, children will listen… B+3stars

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