Stephen Sondheim’s musical treatment of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales has been all but canonized by lovers of “highbrow” musical theatre. As such, the selection of Rob Marshall to helm the film adaption of Sondheim’s Into the Woods was not a that inspired much confidence: his disappointing Nine drew glaring attention to his repetitive tricks and ticks as a director that seemed original in his rapturously received Chicago, thus it appeared almost foolhardy to let him lay his hands on such a beloved play. Thankfully abandoning his exhausted conceit of staging musical numbers in the imaginations of his characters, Rob Marshall allows Into the Woods‘s characters to belt its tunes in the diegesis of its titular woods, and is amusing and energetic, while delivering the play’s moralistic messages.
When a witch’s prized magic beans are stolen from her, a curse she places on a Baker and his Wife sends the two on a journey through the woods to find “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as gold, the hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.” Their wish is to have a child, and over the course of the first act, their paths collide with Cinderella and Jack (of that famous beanstalk), who have wishes of their own, while also meeting Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and other princes, a wolf, “and humans, too,” who will all inadvertently have a hand in their fate. Throughout the play, the developments of each of these events raise the question “are you certain what you wish is what you want?” (a question voiced by the spirit of Cinderella’s deceased mother). As this is considered, the audience is treated to dynamic musical numbers that are hilarious and rousing (“Agony”), subtle in their wisdom and illumination (“I Know Things Now” and “Giants in the Sky”), and simply heart-wrenching (“Stay with Me”).
In all its efforts to condense a 160 minute musical into a two hour film adaptation, Into the Woods loses some steam, omitting some of the most essential moments in the play’s second act: the final segment of the Act One Finale “Ever After” is shortened, and bleeds into the content of the second act, bypassing the narration that typically opens the often criticized second act of the play. It is probable that audiences unfamiliar with Sondheim’s musical may be confused by this subversion of its book: the musical’s brief Act Two Prologue establishes a great deal of development in many of its characters (notably for The Baker, The Baker’s Wife, and Cinderella), and in its absence, many of the film’s eventual plot developments feel like jarring jumps. It is ultimately shocking that of all the material the creative team behind Into the Woods would chose to omit, the couple of minutes that would clarify so much was ruled to be dispensable.
Like most directors behind film adaptations of Broadway musicals, Rob Marshall attempts to truncate Into the Woods‘s running time, to the point that its second act is gutted, and, yet, its final forty minutes drag. In fact, its overwhelming saviour is the presence of Meryl Streep. In perhaps a career peak, Meryl Streep’s performance of “Last Midnight” is sly, eerie, and menacing, and she authoritatively commands the screen in such a way that few of the types of projects she routinely gravitates to afford her. Her interpretation of “Stay with Me” in the film’s first act is also compelling: her Witch’s loneliness is palpably felt in her pleads for Rapunzel, the child she has raised, to not forsake her. And, in the Prologue of the first act, especially in her “Witch’s Rap,” Streep perfects a highly stylized delivery that is not only welcomed, but necessary, in this incarnation of Into the Woods‘s fairy tale personification. Like Tilda Swinton in I Am Love, the glamour and beauty of Streep’s character’s stylization (after The Witch’s transformation) is so unprecedented and breathtaking, even in a career as prolific and enduring as hers.
Looking beyond Streep, Anna Kendrick is the film’s next most notable standout. Her rendition of Cinderella is the epitome of a Disney Princess, through and through, but she is simultaneously capable of nailing the vocal and physical mannerisms of a young Broadway marquee diva. Chris Pine understands and embraces the camp qualities of his part in the film, and his performance of “Agony” is such a highlight that it is regrettable that the reprise of “Agony” was not deemed to be worthy of inclusion. And, Emily Blunt offers a commitment to her portrayal of what may truly be the most developed character, but can still often be dull, providing a grounding and urgency that augments and elevates the emotional stakes of the film.
Technically, Into the Woods‘s merits are mixed. Director of Cinematography Dion Beebe lights the film exquisitely: the key light lands on the actors faces and back light shines through their hair beautifully. But, for all its wondrous lighting, the camera’s eye is too roaming, and often fails to linger on its actors’ faces as long as it should. This is especially obvious and distracting in the Prologue of the First Act, but, thankfully, one becomes accustomed to this for the remainder of Into the Woods. Meanwhile, the ever reliable Colleen Atwood consistently provides stunning costume designs that expertly draw the audience into the period/fantasy atmosphere at large.
While it exhibits more than its fair share of flaws, Into the Woods is a production full of infectious enthusiasm and wonder. It is perhaps the most accessible treatment of Sondheim in film since West Side Story, and still the best musical adaptation of the modern era.
[author image=”https://fbcdn-sphotos-b-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash2/v/t1.0-9/537263_10151648514240981_811158278_n.jpg?]David Acacia lives in Toronto, Canada, posts regularly on AwardsWatch forums, and is the self-appointed High Priest of the Church of Meryl Streep. He is also a member of the International Cinephile Society where he writes for film festivals and film reviews.[/author]