By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Happily ever after. Or not.
Those are the only two possibilities for characters who venture Into the Woods, as they pursue eternal happiness and are reminded to be careful what they wish for in the big-screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s oft-produced, Tony award-winning, 1987 Broadway hit musical.
Into the Woods is a fairy tale-themed musical fantasy, an amalgam of the interwoven adventures of several of our most iconic storybook characters and familiar/beloved Brothers Grimm children’s stories, including “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”
The fairy-tale characters, living in a timeless universe, strive to get their wishes granted and then, having gotten them, have to deal with the consequences of those wishes.
The springboard for the plot is the decision by The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who have been unable to have children because of a curse placed on them by The Witch (Meryl Streep), to accept said witch’s offer to grant them their procreative wish and reverse the curse if they will, scavenger hunt-style, go into the woods and procure for her four particular items familiar from the fairy tales on display that she needs to cast a spell: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.
(No fair stopping at a convenience store…!)
With Johnny Depp as The Wolf after Little Red Riding Hood, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella (top photo), Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince, and Tracey Ullmann as beanstalker Jack’s mom, director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) has an eminently watchable cast on his hands.
And they can sing, too!
It’s a pity, then, that Sondheim’s lyrics, as always prodigiously clever, don’t manage to affect or amuse us even as they showcase his genius. Emotional engagement is minimal. We admire the work, sure, but from a much greater distance than we want to.
As for his music, hummability is rarely his goal. And that’s never been more true than it is with this very cerebral piece.
The play, featuring music and lyrics by Sondheim and the book and screenplay by James Lapine, is a dark and cynical modern reinterpretation of these fables that starts out as if it were a kid-friendly visit to an enchanted forest but ends up very much an exploration of yearning and learning for grownups in a contemporary post-9/11 world in which paranoia is easily justified.
This material has, of course, been sanitized a smidgen to accommodate the PG rating for the targeted family audience.
Director Marshall — whose Chicago, the winner of six Oscars, essentially revived the movie musical –- does not get the same results in being translated to the big screen that 2002’s triumphant best picture did. The stagebound claustrophobia that worked for Chicago works against Into the Woods.
The we’re-all-in-this-together theme is an admirable sentiment, but the film pays a price, just as the play did, for its multitude of featured characters and fractured narrative, with no clearly focused-upon protagonist for viewers to bond with or through-line to strap on.
So we’ll reinterpret 2 stars out of 4 for a stylized ensemble musical about wishes, granted or otherwise, that displays plenty of stagecraft but precious little heart-and-soul accessibility.
If only Into the Woods were easier to get into.