After over a decade of box office success with revisionist fairy tales of one sort (Shrek) or another (Snow White and the Huntsman) or another (Maleficent), I suppose it was about time Hollywood got around to adapting Stephen Sondheim’s original Grimm mashup, Into the Woods. That musical, co-written with James Lapine, was first produced in 1986. It took long enough for something so cinematic and imaginative as this series of head-on collisions between a variety of classic tales made it to the screen. Perhaps the delay was simply how much further the material takes its revisionist impulses, to a place darker and more destabilizing to the very idea of fairy tales than those others dare.
Disney, no stranger to wonderful fairy tales, but rarely willing to overtly dig down dark, has brought the stage to the screen with director Rob Marshall, whose Chicago put a layer of dreamy glitz on a sordid murder musical. The resulting Into the Woods adaptation, scripted by Lapine with music supervision by Sondheim, gets at what’s most provocative about the story, stripping away layers of feel-good fantasy while attempting to still let some sentimental magic in around the edges. It’s a partial equivocation to crowd pleasing in a more conventional sense, pulling back from a few of the nastier moments, but remains admirably committed to being a big feel-bad musical, a bunch of great lyrics and melody with a bittersweet aftertaste.
The opening sets a collection of familiar characters – Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack who will have the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) – off on their recognizable stories. The first twist is placing them all in the same world, crossing paths, each story’s simple patterns trailing ripple effects through the others’. The second twist is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), childless because of a witch (Meryl Streep) and her curse, heading out into the woods to get the curse reversed. The ingredients they must collect: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair yellow as corn, and a slipper pure as gold. This quest brings them into direct conflict with the other plotlines, further complicating simple tales.
By the midpoint, every story has reached its happy ending, everyone happily married off or with child or rich. The only people disfigured or blinded are wicked stepsisters. But then the real story begins, revealing happily ever after to be short lived. Their wishes have been granted, and yet their lives are no easier, and choices they made to get there have unintended consequences. The easy morality of fairy tales leaves these characters unprepared for dissatisfaction, revenge, abandonment, infidelity, and death. That’s the sour note of real life infecting giddy childhood fantasy. And so the movie follows suit, buzzing with clever Grimm knottiness for an hour before tipping over into sadness and upsetting developments. Sondheim’s play is about the limits of life lessons gleaned from these tales, and how destabilizing it can be to feel alone in the world without easy answers to guide you.
The movie version gets there, but it’s by its very nature flashier, cutting between storylines quickly and inelegantly, making an occasional jumble out of its various strands. Trims to the plot, especially in the back half, foreshorten motivations and rush the revelations. But there are smaller miscues of editing. Early on we’re told about a prince, singular, throwing a festival. Then a few cuts later, we meet a prince, a different one. In the last third, two characters die in different ways, presented so obliquely it may as well be off screen. Their fates aren’t clear until other characters tell us later. One literally falls out of frame, later revealed to have been a fatal plunge from a cliff, not a trip over a branch as one could reasonably assume.
Stumbles of staging aside, there’s a fine patina of fakery to it all. The woods never feel like a real place, just a soundstage. I didn’t mind it much. The set has its charms and Marshall finds real emotional engagement between his actors that enlivens the glittering falsehoods around them. Corden and Blunt’s bakers are especially good, with breezy repartee and excellent timing. Kendrick’s charming as always, this time as a flustered indecisive young woman. These three are the heart of the picture, shouldering the burden of the tonal shifts while Streep hams it up howling and cackling in the background as the witch goads the stories forward. Elsewhere, there’s room for small but juicy comic parts played with aplomb by Chris Pine, Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullman, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, and more. They’re welcome flavoring to this world.
Marshall steps out of his cast’s way and lets them spill forth with Sondheim’s delectable wordplay, rhyming, punning, and clattering with all manner of delightful alliterations that trip off the tongue and sweet simple poetic constructions that sit pleasantly on the ear. The big musical moments land because of the writing, and the skill with which the performers feel it. These little moments, aching with yearning and surprise, work wonders. But the big picture doesn’t cohere in the way it should. The story’s pacing’s off and the staging imprecise, but the hopeful bittersweet conclusion is affecting, even if the remaining pieces feel a tad forced to fit. Masterpieces of one medium rarely retain that status in the leap to another. That Into the Woods is a good movie, but not a great one, is only a minor disappointment.