Be careful what you wish for is the message behind this Disney-fied adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony award-winning Broadway musical. Fans of the stage production may be wise to heed that advice as anyone hoping for an entirely faithful adaptation will surely come out disappointed.
Into The Woods’ darkly satirical material revels in putting the grim in Grimm fairytales and it was always going to make for a challenging transition from stage to screen. But while a frantically paced plot and disheartening editorial decisions have crunched the subversive edge and genuine heart out of the story, what remains is a thoroughly charming, enchanting and entertaining spectacle, powered by romping performances and undercut with a wry sense of humour.
Drawn from Sondheim’s own troubled childhood, this musical fantasy is a bleak rumination on the big themes of greed, morality, parenthood and accepting responsibility. The tale follows the plight of a childless baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) as they set out to end the curse cast upon them by a vengeful witch (Streep) by venturing into the creepy woods where they cross paths with a pack of fairytale characters – Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and a young beanstalk enthusiast named Jack among them – and learn a painful lesson about the consequences of getting what you want.
The biggest challenge for director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and Lapine, who adapts his own book here, is binding together this multitude of crosscutting characters into one lean, cohesive narrative. It’s a feat far easier to achieve within the confines of a stage than it is the sprawling potential of a movie and this film never quite gets the story under control. The first half in particular unfolds at such a frenetic pace that it becomes hard to see the wood for the trees as far as character arcs and themes are concerned, with Marshall sweeping between characters at a dizzying frequency until the story is just a headache to follow.
This has a damaging effect on the film’s second half that, although much improved thanks to all the characters banding together to pursue the same goal, lacks the emotional gut punch of the stage version. It doesn’t help that the work has undergone a “family-friendly” revamp to dampen the most challenging material. Characters and songs have been jettisoned, Rapunzel no longer goes mad and dies, the two sleazy princes don’t ditch their brides for Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and two supposedly tragic deaths are shorn of their brutality, all of which rather dilutes the idea that selfish pursuits can have terrible ramifications.
Yet, the end product is so uproariously enjoyable to watch that its storytelling setbacks won’t matter a jot to most viewers. The sparkling ensemble equip themselves well throughout to tackle Sondheim’s tricky tongue-twister lyrics. Johnny Depp makes a crooning cameo as the lascivious wolf and Meryl Streep’s earthy and unhinged witch is a cackling delight. James Corden is disarmingly earnest as a hopelessly lost baker and Emily Blunt plays his wife with warmth and likability, their easy chemistry resulting in some sweetly funny moments.
Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen also have fun going full on panto camp as two ladish princes while their mock romantic duet Agony is a deliciously cheesy highlight. The production design, too, is gorgeous, Marshall’s team crafting a cinematic world that evokes the magic and wondrous potential of a fairytale whilst also hinting at the tragic events to come with its crumbling interiors.
Into The Woods may not be the perfect adaptation, playing fast and loose with essential elements of the original story and muddying its own waters as a result, but the performances fizz with style and vigour and the songs are delivered with such a joyful energy that any thoughts about its narrative flaws get lost in the woods along with everything else.
Click here to watch the trailer for Into The Woods