FILM REVIEW: Into The Woods

After watching Into The Woods, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical, it seems to me that ‘The Woods’ aren’t so much a place, but rather a state of mind. A place of suspended disbelief, where stories are mixed up and characters wander in and out of narratives as they please.

By default, some people will gel with this quite happily, where others won’t. It’s worth remembering that, despite the variety of upside-down, what-happened-next fairytales available for our viewing pleasure, Into the Woods was very much a forerunner back in the day. 

But back to the film. The ‘Prologue’, introduces us to James Corden’s baker and his wife (Emily Blunt) a childless couple, who are one day visited by a witch (Meryl Streep) who claims responsibility for the curse on their house which has rendered them childless all these years. They are set the challenge of retrieving certain magical items (you can probably hazard a guess) by the next blue moon in three days’ time in order for the curse to be lifted. Along the way, they meet some familiar fairy-tale faces, albeit with a twist each time, from an indecisive Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), to an arrogant, slightly sinister Prince Charming (Chris Pine), to an emotional Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) via Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame, whose best friend is a cow.

Personally I’d be hard pushed not to enjoy something Sondheim has had even the smallest involvement in, as the many questionable performances of ‘Being Alive’ I’ve watched on youtube is a testament to, but arguably as strong a draw with this production is the all-star cast. And that proved a worthy notion, although not entirely in the way you would expect. Most of the pre-release hype has been focused almost entirely on Meryl Streep, calling to mind that highly appropriate Tina Fey and Amy Poehler Golden Globes joke ‘Meryl Streep can’t be here tonight… She has the flu – and I hear she’s amazing in it’.

And amazing indeed she is, veering between cackling, spell-casting and flashing her disturbingly long nails –all your traditional witchy activities – and genuine, heart-felt laments at the loss of her beauty and youth. Oh and her magic beans, of course. She’s quite keen on them. Her performance of the powerful ‘Last Midnight’, a typically complex Sondheim number full of quirky rhymes (see ‘witch’ and ‘hitch’, ‘hunch’ and ‘bunch’) and neat summaries of just about everyone else in the plot along the way, is particularly awe-inspiring.

But I’d be willing to bet that it is Emily Blunt’s performance audiences are still talking about on the bus home. She plays the childless baker’s wife with vulnerability, warmth and vitality, all whilst cracking out a singing voice I certainly had no idea she possessed, providing some really gorgeous harmonies in the group numbers in particular.

And it’s not just Blunt who takes us by surprise. Chris Pine’s performance of the out-loud ego-trip ‘Agony’ alongside Rapunzel’s Prince Billy Magnussen was an unexpected triumph (‘Agony! Far more painful than yours, when you know she would go with you, if there only were doors’), as were almost all songs performed by the younger actors - Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Les Miserables’ Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. Film viewers know Anna Kendrick has a lovely voice through Pitch Perfect, but it’s great to see her stretching her cinematic comfort zone a bit here, and using those Tony nominated Broadway vocal chords to full effect. 
You can also play an excellent game of ‘spot the character actor’ in Act II, if Johnny Depp (who else?)’s performance as the infamous big bad wolf wasn’t enough for you.

Marshall has played a sensible game here in striking for the fun, playful angle in Into The Woods, rather than overly focusing on the themes of storytelling or the innate darkness in children’s stories – Cinderella’s ugly sisters cutting off parts of their feet in order to fit the slipper, anyone? The darker scenes are there, granted, but they never feel like the main focus.

This is by no means a perfect film, you do get the slight sense at times that there's a little something missing, but you can't quite put your finger on what.

With that in mind, if you enter the woods looking for a good time, you won’t stray far from the path. 




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