Arts Review, Movies
Rob Marshall, director
James Lapine, script based on his play with Stephen Sondheim
Stephen Sondheim, music
Starring: Meryl Streep (The Witch), Emily Blunt (The Baker’s Wife), James Corden (The Baker), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince) Johnny Depp (The Wolf), Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother)
Broadway musical lovers and Stephen Sondheim admirers let me reassure you: Disney has not ruined Into the Woods. The film version of James Lapine’s and Sondheim’s postmodern fairy tale isn’t as dark and clever as the theatrical original—how many adaptations are?—but the script is still more than satisfying. And the film itself is, well, magical.
For those who don’t know Into the Woods, it’s a brilliant take on Grimm’s fairy tales. Imagine a fantasy world with a deep dark forest and castles and villages. People them with the characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella. Add another tale about a baker’s wife who can’t conceive a child because of a witch’s curse. Throw in nobility and treachery and magic and loves lost and regained. Few writers can match Lapine (with Sondheim), when it comes to mixing all of these elements and making them funny and knowing and, ultimately philosophical.
Then there’s Lapine’s collaborator. Some will say that Sondheim is a musical genius. Others argue that he can’t be that great—after all, apart from “Send in the Clowns,” he hasn’t composed the music for any hit songs. The argument seems absurd; who else could have written the wonderfully atmospheric and sophisticated compositions for Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? In any case, I am in the “he’s a genius,” camp, which must be obvious by now.
In films, another voice besides Lapine and Sondheim has to be present, that of the director. Into the Wood’s director is Rob Marshall, whose debut directorial feature Chicago was a triumph; before entering cinema, he had been a brilliant choreographer. Clearly, Marshall was the right collaborator for Sondheim and Lapine: the film has the effervescence of a musical. It feels choreographed, thanks to the camera movements, brilliantly designed by the director’s go-to cinematographer Dion Beebe.
The cast is excellent, too, particularly Meryl Streep as the Witch and Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. The only weaknesses are in the casting of the not very charismatic James Corden as the Baker and the not-so glamorous Anna Kendrick as Cinderella. A somewhat more problematic defect is the slaying of the Giant’s Wife, which simply isn’t staged properly for the screen. At the moment of greatest menace, the film suddenly feels stage-bound.
But these are quibbles.
Go to Into the Woods and feel the magic of great music and storytelling.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical 96.3 FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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