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Into the Woods

December 25, 2014
Into the Woods

There are a lot of musicals that get adapted to film, but surprisingly few of them come from Stephen Sondheim. It’s a shame that moviegoers so seldom get to hear from one of the most original contemporary musical theater composers, but this holiday season they can play a little catch-up with Disney’s adaptation of Into the Woods.

Nowadays, recontextualizing fantasy and fairy tales is commonplace. Wicked has inverted The Wizard of Oz it on Broadway for a decade; Maleficent, one of the best movies of this year, pulls a similar trick with Sleeping Beauty; there are three broadcast television series based on some variation of the idea that these tales all stem from some common background. But Sondheim and James Lapine premiered Into the Woods in 1987, and it holds up every bit as well today, even with all this competition.

We start, as always, with a narrator (Jude Law) and “Once upon a time…” A childless baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) learn that his line has been cursed by the witch next door (Meryl Streep) because his father stole some magic beans from her garden. Their one chance to reverse the curse will come in three days’ time, but it requires they acquire the ingredients they’ll find in the nearby (and titular) Woods: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold.

The cow belongs to a foolish boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), whose mother (Tracey Ullman) sends him to sell it, so we have a fair idea where the magic beans will end up. The cape belongs to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). The hair is from Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), while the slipper is from Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who races to and from the festival being held these same three nights. All these stories come together in the Woods — that liminal space, neither here nor there, that plays such an important role in the Grimms’ tales.

The adaptation does suffer some in the translation, particularly in toning down some of Lapine and Sondheim’s more adult themes into more family-friendly fare. Still, after the confidence Disney showed in releasing Maleficent I’m willing to cut them a little slack for a Christmas day release. The story still retains a fair edge, though; it’s nowhere near as smarmy and saccharine as Disney’s 2012 holiday offering The Odd Life of Timothy Green was.

In fact, more disappointing than the tone is the way the second act has been carved up. It’s true that the first act is the more direct adaptation of the original stories, which is what most of the target audience is likely interested in anyway. But the second act’s expansion and commentary on the first is what gave the musical most of its narrative heft. It’s distinctly darker to deconstruct the idea of “… happily ever after”, and taking some of this out is key to lightening the mood the way Disney wanted. But thinning it out also makes the downturn that much more precipitous; it feels awkwardly sudden.

Still, it’s Sondheim, and plenty of his wonderful music remains intact. The beautifully polyphonic prologue sets a high bar right off, and the cast keep coming back to match it over and over. Even Chris Pine — possibly the least likely cast member — holds his own opposite Billy Magnussen in “Agony”, which perfectly taps his ability to play a ridiculous dudebro type. Kendrick we know can carry a tune, and she and Streep both shine in some of the most musically interesting numbers to ever make it to the silver screen.

This may not be the finest adaptation of Into the Woods I’ve ever seen, but it’s easily the best musical we’ve seen this year, with only Bret McKenzie’s work on Muppets Most Wanted offering any serious competition. For most of the country, this is the holiday release to see.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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