Review: Into The Woods
This was expected to be the year of the musical on film. A resurgence of the musical, if you will. True, there have been musicals released every year in cinema since The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, but the quality and quantity have both steadily declined over the past 87 years. This year was supposed to be a joyous one for musical fans, one, on paper, where they could convert their musical-hating curmudgeon companions into toe-tapping, humming folk.
This year saw the theatrical release of musicals Muppets Most Wanted, Begin Again, Annie, Jersey Boys, God Help the Girl, One Chance and Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. Some were admittedly better than others (does anyone other than Lea Michele even remember Legends of Oz?), but when comparing rotten apples to even more decaying apples, there is little point to bother comparing. And thus, musical fandom looked with a dying glimmer of hope to the final musical release of the year, Into the Woods, director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of composer Stephen Sondheim’s timeless production.
It is fitting that the first words sung by most of the characters are “I wish…”. Many fans of the show longed for not only a faithful adaptation, but also a musical that one could watch all the way through without cringing. It is with great pleasure (and after an enormous sigh of relief) that we pronounce Into the Woods the first accomplished musical on film this year. Musical theatre fans, it is safe to go back into the cinemas. As for your Grinch-like, musical-hating companions, there is much for them to enjoy in the film, but its somber third act may turn them off.
For those unfamiliar with the stage production, it is a fascinating amalgamation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Jungian theory, churned together to create lessons on the parent-child dynamic, coping with loss, personal growth, and the value of community. Collaborators James Lapine (who wrote the book of which the musical is based upon), and the aforementioned Sondheim created so much more than just a musical about fairy tales (which is what many will scoff and assume the film is all about at first glance). Many detractors point to the show’s “saggy” climax in which central characters Jack, the Baker, Cinderella, and Red Riding Hood must face off against the lady Giant, but this moment in the woods is the impetus from which the poetic songs No One is Alone and Children Will Listen bloom.
The film adaptation stars James Corden (from aforementioned One Chance) and Emily Blunt (Looper) as the Baker and the Baker’s wife, respectively, whose desperate yearning to have a child sets in motion the action for much of the narrative. They’re informed by their neighbor, the haggard Witch (performed with extraordinary theatrical gusto by Meryl Streep) that in order to have a generation-old curse on their fertility reversed, they must collect “a cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold”, in three days time, in order for the Witch to reverse the curse. In their journey into the literal and the symbolic woods to recover these magical items they come across Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, Gavroche from Les Miserables), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford, Broadway’s most recent Annie), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) and her Prince (Billy Magnussen), as well as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (scene-stealer Chris Pine). As presumed, all does not come to a happy end.
Though the second act is often a bit tangled (pardon the pun) and some of the actors aren’t as strong as others vocally, the elegiac songs, intricate costumes by Colleen Atwood, and powerful ensemble more than make up for its shortcomings. This is a journey for which it is well worth travelling Into the Woods.