Into the Woods struggles in fine tuning prior iterations for the big screen, and finding its own identity as a film, but it's still an overall enchanting and entertaining musical experience for all ages.
Into the Woods tells the story of iconic fairy tale characters whose lives become entangled thanks to the plotting of a malevolent witch. Hoping to lift a spell that stole her youth and beauty, the Witch (Meryl Streep) manipulates a humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) into stealing a series of notable items (the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold). If the couple succeeds in their quest within three days, the witch promises to remove a curse from the baker's house - a curse that has prevented his wife from bearing children.
While the Baker and his wife traverse the forest in search of the witch's shopping list, familiar Grimm characters, including Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of Beanstalk fame, face their own perilous adventures, not to mention charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) in the woods. However, as each character comes face-to-face with their story book destinies - some discover that their dreams are not quite as magical as they might have previously imagined.
While the big screen adaptation of Into the Woods is based heavily on Stephen Sondheim's hit musical, it was actually the musical book's author, James Lapine, who wrote the film script - with director Rob Marshall (Chicago) sitting in the director's chair. As a result, the movie benefits from the playfulness and meta-story moments of the book and musical adaptation, while fans of Lapine's and Sondheim's broadway show (not to mention film musicals in general) will find plenty to enjoy in Marshall's version.
Still, in navigating the original tone of Lapine and Sondheim's iteration, Into the Woods presents a more mature (and downright lengthy) narrative than casual filmgoers might be anticipating - especially considering Disney's kid-friendly marketing of the movie. Unlike the stories that inspired it, Into the Woods does not feature the same "happily ever after" storylines of Brothers Grimm tales - meaning that many of the boldest divergencies might actually be off-putting for younger viewers and moviegoers who wanted a light-hearted (and straightforward) re-creation of classic fairy tales. That said, Lapine's screenplay still makes noticeable adjustments to the larger Into the Woods canon, in the interest of a more PG-rated version of events, producing some downright awkward tonal and pacing change-ups.
Whereas the stage show's central pivot is punctuated by an audience intermission, the film does not provide its viewers with the same breathing room. For that reason, dramatic reversals in character arcs (and individual desires) turn once-relatable protagonists into fickle and unlikable plot devices - all for the purpose of communicating a shrewd message about fantasy love and happiness. On the stage, with room to reflect between chapters/acts, this grey morality works; but on the big screen, as a 124 minute film, some viewers may find that Marshall's direction of an adaptation (Lapine's script) of Sondheim's musical, creates several abrupt and underdeveloped shifts - not to mention a few outright abandoned plot threads (read: Rapunzel).
Whereas Tom Hooper's Les Miserables utilized raw audio from the set, Marshall did not record his cast singling live on-stage - choosing to add polished (and poppy) vocals into the mix separate from filmed footage. For that reason, the lip-synced musical numbers and kid-friendly alterations to the story could lead die-hard Into the Woods fans to feel that Disney's version sacrifices the stage show's raw energy (along with the book's darker developments) in order to repackage the core storyline as a glossy and energetic adventure for a much broader (and younger) audience. The movie is mostly faithful to previous Into the Woods projects, providing the same fun twists on fairy tale tropes, but there's no question that Marshall has polished away some of the core story's more interesting and impactful elements.
Yet, even when the narrative labors under the weight of Into the Woods' franchise history, the film is full of great performances as well as beautiful visuals and choreography that enhance Sondheim's Tony Award-winning musical foundation. Viewers who are fond of Anna Kendrick's work in Pitch Perfect will, without question, enjoy seeing the actress singing onscreen again and, in addition to catchy crooning, Kendrick's Cinderella is also given one of the more engaging arcs of the film. James Corden (Doctor Who) is equally strong as the Baker providing a lovable but desperate performance that serves as a key emotional anchor in Marshall's adaptation.
Similarly, Meryl Streep is a scene-stealer as the Witch - injecting a complicated charisma into a role that was already made famous by Broadway starlet Bernadette Peters. Ultimately, the Witch is sometimes underserved by the film adaptation process (especially in her relationship with Mackenzie Mauzy's Rapunzel) but Streep manages to make each of her songs and dramatic moments memorable. Additionally, Into the Woods features an expansive roster of top-tier talent in supporting roles - with solid turns (and musical numbers) from Emily Blunt, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tracy Ullman, and Johnny Depp (whose Big Bad Wolf isn't actually onscreen very long), among others.
The "Agony" duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen is a good indicator that Marshall's version has the potential to please both fans and newcomers alike - with fun riffs on familiar fairy tales and their cliches. Even when the movie stumbles in tying together all of its plot lines and thematic juxtapositions, there is still plenty of fun to be had moment to moment. Into the Woods struggles in fine tuning prior iterations for the big screen, and finding its own identity as a film, but it's still an overall enchanting and entertaining musical experience for all ages.
Into the Woods runs 124 minutes and is Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material. Now playing in theaters.
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