Stephen Sondheim. James Lapine. Walt Disney. Rob Marshall. Meryl Streep. Emily Blunt. And Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman, Chris Pine and Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk.
Sounds like a combination for a sure-fire blockbuster, and Into the Woods almost makes it, in more ways than one (according to the IMDB, Woods has grossed $92M as of January 5). Woods is not your Disney fairy-tale so I’m quite pleased that the company took a risk and produced it. It might tip over into the magic $100M (it probably will, counting overseas receipts) so Disney’s risk is paying off but the film itself is less than a blockbuster.
It’s not the fault of director Rob Marshall. He juggles the disparate story lines masterfully, preventing them from collapsing into sheer chaos. I especially liked his dark, gloomy production design, a cross between Tim Burton and Clint Eastwood.
But this is a musical with no jaw-dropping, explosive production numbers like ‘Cell Block Tango’ from his “Chicago.” It’s darker, more intimate and introspective.
Summarized, a baker and his wife learn they are under a curse of infertility by a forest witch. She gives them a chance to reverse the spell within three days. They undertake the quest, which brings them into conflict with Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, who are also in and about the woods doing their own things. But there are no bright, sparkling moments of Disney-like magic. Deadly danger lurks everywhere.
Stephen Sondheim’s intent is that reality trumps fairy tales every time, and if we want a fairy-tale ending then we need to be careful what we wish for, especially when it comes to spouses and children.
He also brings a nuanced vision to the story. The man who wrote musicals about Sweeney Todd, the serial killer, and Assassins also adds complexity to these characters. Cinderella flees the ball because she’s afraid the Prince won’t want her if he discovers her true identity. She’s almost right, because she’s married to a prince (Chris Pine) who was raised to be charming (played by Chris Pine’s blue eyes) but nothing else (by his own admission). But, even though Sondheim was at his peak when he wrote this musical, and he always gets respect for his intelligence and integrity, the story feels overburdened and overly ambitious. There’s too much going on, especially in the last act and the story feels a bit too long (running time is 125 minutes).
The cast, though, is first-rate, and they’re allowed their own singing voices. Meryl Streep is the unforgettable glue holding the stories together, delivering another top-notch performance. Johnny Depp, as the Big Bad Wolf, makes the most of his short scene. James Corden and Emily Blunt, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, get the most screen time. Their chemistry is real, and they deliver the best rapid-fire patter songs in the show. Anna Kendrick even makes the wishy-washy Cinderella believable. Of special note are juvenile actors Daniel Huttlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, who hold their own against considerable adult talent.
The movie–the story–trips but the stumbles are minor and all the talent involved keep the story from falling on its face. It’s not your parent’s Disney, but the story, of human resilience and connection in a dark forest of a world, is very much with us in 2014. Not bad for a musical from 1987.