Visually arresting and musically deep and inviting, Disney’s adaptation by Rob Marshall (Chicago) of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is mesmerizing in its own way. Though it gets bogged down by Meryl Streep as the witch – she’s too domineering, which sometimes stops, rather than frames or enhances, the show – the magic of maturing in the dark, bending and breaking woods flourishes in Marshall’s capable hands.
Intersecting stories of a baker and his barren wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), a boy and his mother (Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman), the witch and her daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), with Christine Baranski as the stepmother and Johnny Depp as the wolf, subtly blend in a kingdom with poignant touches, emotional songs and cinematic flair. The film does Sondheim justice.
Layers of life lessons are woven, embedded and peeled away with humor, tenderness and worldly bitterness, longing and cheer. That everything is packed into the rhythmic and musical tales of the witch’s curse commanding the childless couple to find a white cow, a golden shoe, a blood-red cape and hair as yellow as corn in exchange for a child is itself an achievement. The pictures move, glow and draw the audience inward from the start, as a grayness in the sky melds into something that is not as it first appears.
The theme that life is richer than cliches and expectations is well played, especially by Blunt, Pine and Ullman and the children, in particular, Huttlestone as an indefatigable boy named Jack, who is willing to be thought a fool to love his pet and brave enough to pierce the sky. The whole complicated storybook in song does merge with a wink at the camera, especially in the number with the handsome princes pining away for their lost maidens. With the witch twirling into thin air with melodrama and giants thumping from a distance, not to mention the wolf ready to pounce and tear into plump young flesh, Disney does not soften what is hard and knowing and the prospect of journeying into darkness to lighten one’s load is both dramatized and made musical with a black, brown and midnight blue look that fits the narrative. Fans of the stage show will notice discrepancies, of course, but the show’s core holds.
Taking the scope of a lifetime, from birth to death and everything meaningful in between, and putting it to poetry, music and pictures, Rob Marshall knits the characters’ stories, doubts and insecurities into a winding pattern, bringing untethered single lives into a communion that cashes in on hard-earned lessons with affirmation and an outward look. Into the Woods prowls and stalks the audience with cleverness in melody and words that mean something, for a change, with what it means not burned out on life, for a bigger change. But it is intended to be savored by those who have been to darker places and been burned (and who hasn’t?). If you can forgive the Streep-ness and keep the metaphor in mind as you chuckle, laugh and are moved to feel, you are likely to find wonder in Stephen Sondheim’s point that the best part of going in is coming out.