Into the Woods Dir. Rob Marshall

[Disney; 2014]

Styles: musical, fantasy
Others: Enchanted, Beauty and the Beast

The connection between Hollywood and Broadway has evolved over the decades from a one-way street to something now resembling a Moebius strip. One is constantly feeding inspiration and content to the other, with some projects (Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors) circling back again, carrying new characters and storylines along for the ride.

It’s going to be interesting, then, to see how Broadway responds to the cinematic success of Into The Woods. Will producers there tamp down the seamier aspects of the original stage production and snip out characters like the film’s director Rob Marshall and its many producers did? You know, for the kids? Because for however well they adapt Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s witty and wise musical, it is still a Disney vehicle that has been slightly neutered in hopes of garnering mass appeal.

To the film company’s credit, the creators hit on a rich vein of moldable source material with Woods that folds in neatly with their long-running interest in fairy tales and ancient yarns. If anything, the Sondheim/Lapine work offered up a cornucopia of inspiration, with its spins on Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk. As in the original musical, this film imagines a world where all the stories are happening simultaneously and affect one another, all under the watchful eye of a powerful witch (played with scenery-chewing brio by Meryl Streep).

The story that threads it all together involves a baker and his wife (future late night talk show host James Corden and Emily Blunt) learning that the couple’s infertility issues are caused by a curse placed on the house by the witch that lives next door. And if they are to lift the curse, they must collect hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold, and a cow as white as milk.

You can hopefully put the pieces together connecting this to each of the aforementioned tales by this point, but watching these characters cross paths and picking out how Sondheim and Lapine tweaked their well-known stories in big and small ways is where the film gets its energy. That and the agile vocal performances from almost all the main actors in it. To no one’s surprise, Anna Kendrick is a standout as the put-upon Cinderella and Johnny Depp’s few scenes as The Big Bad Wolf carry a strong whiff of the sexual tension that imbued the stage production. The real show-stoppers, however, are Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, who play sibling princes overcome with romantic longing (for Cinderella and Rapunzel, respectively) and let it all out in “Agony,” a hilarious and perfectly overwrought musical number staged on a babbling brook.

This filmic adaptation of Into The Woods can’t maintain the energy of its first half, unfortunately. The post-fake out happy ending third act is a schlep, not helped by the film’s chastening of a key relationship and the survival of another character knocked off in the stage version. Both felt essential to the original and hurt this adaptation by being brushed aside. There’s also the question of where the $50 million budget for the film went outside of the fine costumes and (likely) the salaries of the cast and crew: for a company known to bring such visual flair to its films, there’s little of that brought to the fore here.

To that last note, it feels like Disney is getting ahead of itself by anticipating the future success of this film on DVD/Blu-ray and streaming services with this production. And many of the scenes in the titular forest might actually be aided by being squeezed into the claustrophobic confines of a flat screen TV or laptop. But like so many of the other edits, adjustments, and rewrites done to this material, it puts the film at a serious disadvantage, ensuring that viewers keep one foot rooted in reality rather than letting them get lost in the forest with their onscreen companions.

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