Growing up, I loved the cockeyed humor of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” One of its segments was called “Fractured Fairy Tales,” where common stories got twisted like a balloon animal. Now there’s a grownup version of it playing on the silver screen – Into The Woods, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago).
The musical is one that Stephen Sondheim wrote during a ten-year partnership with James Lupine. Sondheim is a genius of musical theater, having written the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and then both the music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeny Todd.” During the years 1984 to 1994, when he collaborated with Lupine, they produced three musicals: “Sunday in the Park with George” in 1984, “Passion” in 1994, and in the middle “Into The Woods” (1987). While they were interesting, even audacious stories and were honored with several Tony awards, they didn’t match the success of Sondheim’s earlier work. “Passion” had the shortest run of any winner of the Best Musical Tony.
Into The Woods mashes together several of the classic fairy tales. You have Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (Chris Pine), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and her own prince (Billy Magnussen), Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huddlestone, who played Gavroche in Les Miserables) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and her Wolf (Johnny Depp). What binds them all together is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). A witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door tells them that they’ve been childless because she cursed the baker’s family after his father (Simon Russell Beale) stole magic beans from her garden. That act also twisted the witch into an old crone. But for the next three nights the moon will be blue, and if the baker and his wife can gather four items, one each from the fairy tale groups above, the curse will be broken.
For the first act, the fairy tales progress pretty much as known, except with the baker and his wife stepping into the stories as they gather the needed items. But Sondheim is not a “happily ever after” kind of writer, and in the second act the story turns very dark. In truth, the actual tales, instead of the Disney-fied versions of them, can be scary, horrifying, and deeply creepy. (Strangely enough, this movie is produced by Disney.) But Sondheim goes beyond even those elements of the tales and has the characters face death, sexual betrayal, and loss, even as a rogue giant (Frances de la Tour) is destroying the woods.
The movie’s screenplay was written by Lapine, and he’s cut down the second act so it’s not quite as bitter and sad as the original musical. Marshall does a decent job keeping the production moving along, though with the cuts (or maybe because of them) the movie lags at the end. Film does allow for more interesting staging of on the songs. For Cinderella’s main song “On the Steps of the Palace” she can actually performed it on the palace’s steps, and Marshall’s staging of “Agony” is a standout.
The production has received a couple of Oscar nominations, including Streep’s 19th (!) for acting. To put that in perspective, over the course of the entire history of the Academy Awards, Streep’s been nominated for over a fifth of those years. While it seems gaudy for one actress to rack up that many nominations – and three wins – the problem is she deserves them. The witch is a fascinating character who flows through a whole river of emotions. The role was originated on stage by Bernadette Peters, and she won a Tony for her portrayal.
Anna Kendrick showed her pipes in Pitch Perfect (and on the singles chart with “The Cups Song”), and she handles Sondheim’s music like a Broadway veteran. It’s a pleasant surprise that those in the cast who aren’t known for their musical talents, such as Chris Pine and Emily Blunt, have gorgeous voices to go along with their acting prowess. James Corden isn’t familiar to American audiences (unless they’re Doctor Who fans – he’s appeared in two episodes during Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor), but in England he’s well-known as a writer and producer as well as an actor on both stage and screen. He won a Tony in 2012 for the play “One Man, Two Guv’ners.” His anonymity should come to an end because of this movie as well as his replacing Colin Ferguson on “The Late, Late Show” later this year.
Curiously, Johnny Depp has been promoted as a main part of the cast, even though he has only two scenes and one song. While the role is short, it is both memorable and enjoyable. That’s a stark contrast to his recent starring roles in The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and the current release Mortdecai, where the roles are long but the movies are eminently forgettable and painful to watch.
Into The Woods has done decently at the box office, surpassing $125 million, and it stayed in the top 10 for over a month. But there is an inherent weakness in the production that is deadly for a musical. It doesn’t have a “Send in the Clowns” or a “Tonight” or a “No Business like Show Business” – or to make the point with a recent movie, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go.” While the music is good and the lyrics witty, there’s no song that the audience will be humming on the way out of the theater. Regardless of the strong work of Marshall and his cast, Into The Woods will remain a minor example of a great talent.