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 Meryl Streep (The Giver, Hope Springs, The Iron Lady) as the witch is occasionally distracting, the magic of maturing in the dark, bending and breaking woods flourishes in Marshall’s 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, emotional songs and cinematic flair. The film, co-written and adapted for the screen by co-creator James Lapine, does Sondheim justice.
Layers of life lessons are woven, embedded and peeled away with humor, longing and cheer. That everything is packed into rhythmic and musical tales of a witch’s curse commanding a 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 an achievement. Pictures move, glow and draw the audience inward from the start, as grayness in the sky melds into something that is not as it first appears.
The theme that life is richer than cliches 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 and brave enough to pierce the sky. The whole contemplative storybook in song comes off with a wink at the camera, especially in the performance of “Agony”, with handsome brothers pining away for their lost maidens. With the witch twirling and zapping and giants stomping, not to mention a wolf ready to tear into plump young flesh, Disney does not soften the hard and knowing woods. The prospect of journeying into darkness to lighten one’s load is dramatized and made musical in shades of black, brown and midnight blue. Fans of the show will notice discrepancies, but the show’s core holds.
Arcing 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 fabled characters’ stories, doubts and insecurities into a pattern, bringing untethered single lives into a communion that cashes in on hard-earned lessons with heroism, affirmation and an outward, not weary, look at the world as it is. Into the Woods prowls and stalks the audience with cleverness in melody and words. It is meant to be savored by those who have been to darker places (who hasn’t?). At root, Into the Woods is an impeccable musical about finding goodness in what’s real and true, not in what’s fake and fantasy, and integrating fairy tales to urge the audience to think and get real is simply original and inspired.
Fans of the film will want to own this edition on Blu-Ray, chiefly for the movie-exclusive new song, deleted (and rightly so) from this intelligent musical picture show, “She’ll Be Back”, written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. It’s a short, stand-alone gem that adds depth to the witch character portrayed by Meryl Streep. According to the extra here, it incorporates an idea from Sondheim’s “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” in Gypsy. Adding to the mother-daughter relationship with Rapunzel, the show and its wider significance as a life metaphor, and the movie’s themes of darkness, hardship and self-made family, it’s beautifully done.
But everyone could see, according to director Rob Marshall (Chicago), that the subtle, complex “She’ll Be Back” adversely affects the film and its pace. As it is, I consider this inclusion, with the way it’s filmed and delivered, the disc’s best asset besides the movie.
That single deleted scene also demonstrates the filmmaker’s commitment to quality storytelling. Other features range from satisfactory to good, given the material. Audio commentary is decent, with Marshall and producer John DeLuca addressing differences in the stage to screen adaptation, such as the exclusion of Mysterious Man and the narrator. A “Music & Lyrics” feature provides access to musical song segments with lyrics. A 14-minute piece, “There’s Something About the Woods”, is a good overview of the movie. The movie’s intelligence, streamlined stories within a story, striking set design, with tree roots embellished to establish a mood and a facsimile of cracked bark being woven into the witch costume, with a bit on the musicianship of the score, is all touched upon.
Though I think that Disney should have made a whole examination of the transition from Broadway to Hollywood as the Chicago DVD edition did, this Blu-Ray disc’s four-segment, 30-minute “Deeper into the Woods” will have to do, with Tracey Ullman joking about cows, Meryl Streep reminding me how much she resembles Bonnie Raitt and certain (not all or even most) cast members and crew talking about lighting, set and production design and the story’s themes, envisioned here as a kind of everyone’s in this together notion that doesn’t get it quite right to me. Even Mr. Sondheim, who sees the first half of the show as a montage of selfishness and the second half as an integration or kind of communion, fails to see the full scope of the movie version.
But two of the principals who bring what’s bitter, dark and realistic about Into the Woods to the screen dig deeper into the story’s roots and branches. Meryl Streep talks about her daughter’s response to the scene with falling debris and how her daughter says it reminds her of the aftermath of the Islamic terrorist attack on America on 9/11 in Manhattan, where she lived—Streep’s child was five years old when the Twin Towers were destroyed and 3,000 Americans were exterminated—dramatizing that “bad things happen and children are aware of them”.
This is true and it is an important idea in art.
Director Rob Marshall also names September 11, 2001 as an act of war that haunts the film, the mood and the world, pointing out that President Obama said, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11: “You are not alone…no one is alone.” This exact wording of Into the Woods‘ main theme would mean more coming from a president who tells the truth, which, sadly, Marshall does not question. However, this theme does mean something coming in the form of a dark motion picture of pathos, humor and songs about life sung with sincerity. As Marshall I think correctly observes about the moral center of this full circle of fairy tales, finding light in the center of darkness without minimizing that it is extremely dark and frightening: “Hold on to those you hold dear…you have to decide. You decide.”