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Disney gave audiences a great gift this Christmas in the form of Into the Woods, a cinematic version of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular Broadway musicals. It’s a story that retells and interweaves classic fairytales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. With a solid storyline to adapt for the screen, a Tony Award-winning soundtrack and a stellar cast, this is a movie worth seeing.

 

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If it’s not evident from the opening paragraph, this movie is a musical. Go into the theatre expecting lots of singing. Songs move a lot of the action in the film. I feel this needs to be clear and stated up front because as I walked out of the theatre, a surprising number of people were saying, “I didn’t know it was a musical,” or, “There was too much singing.” If you’re not a fan of musicals in general, no matter the genre, don’t go see this movie. If you’re open to giving musicals a try, however, and you like fairytales, this is a great starter musical.

Note that I won’t be critiquing the fairytale logic used in terms of the storytelling. Things such as people getting eaten by wolves and surviving, beanstalks growing to the sky overnight, climbable hair and people being able to talk to birds are just accepted as magical. I’m not looking to quarrel with the Brothers Grimm about precisely how far a giant would have to fall to be killed.

 

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

 

Additionally, given how much of a fan I am of the original play, I’ll do my best to be impartial and judge the movie on its own merits. That does not mean, however, that I won’t make some comparisons between the two.

For example, many of the problems in the film come from simple differences between screen and stage. Though Sondheim himself was involved in all aspects of the movie except the editing, the film does stay remarkably true to the play’s script, down to exact lines being repeated. However, a straight adaptation of a play to a film often does not work. One such point is the transition between plots. The first half of the play and the movie both involve the main characters traveling through the woods to get their dearest wishes. The second half happens sometime later, but involves the characters discovering that wishes have consequences, and that happily-ever-after doesn’t always last. This divide in plots works well for the stage show, where intermission can separate the two halves. In the movie, however, there is no divide, and it’s somewhat jarring to go from a celebration that many in the theatre thought was the end of the movie (people were standing to leave) to another 45 minutes of a new plot.

 

Meryl Streep as the Witch

Meryl Streep as the Witch

 

The other poor transitions from stage to film were not nearly as major. There were points at which Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) seemed to be overacting a little, but that could only be seen during close shots in his big number “Giants in the Sky.” Huttlestone sang the piece wonderfully, but he looked constantly surprised. While this was probably meant to be portraying his shock at finding giants living in a palace on the clouds, it looked more like he couldn’t believe the sounds coming from his own mouth. This overacting, which can help in the theatre when people in the seats might be too far away to see small facial changes, does not work for the big screen, where every tic and gesture is hard to miss. The other overacting scene belonged to the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) during the song “Agony,” though that was surely intentional, meant to show the characters’ over-the-top nature; it turned out well, and was a funny scene to accompany a funny song.

 

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing "Agony"

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing “Agony”

 

Audiences should also go into this movie realizing that the focus is on the characters and the score, not on the scenery – another holdover from the stage. While the backgrounds are beautiful and well designed, they are also fairly static. A lot of the sets are seen multiple times, and it can be hard to tell different sections of the forest from others. There are a few grand, sweeping shots, but, on the whole, the point of the movie is not where the characters are so much as what they’re doing and saying. The special effects were rather muted too, but again, not the point.

Now, saying that the focus isn’t on the scenery and effects doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t visually striking. The costumes are impeccable; the outfit for the Wolf (Johnny Depp) is particularly imaginative (I will say, though, the Wolf costume from the stage show has its own, shall we say, anatomical merits; I recommend an image search…). The actors are all incredibly attractive people too; even while Meryl Streep as the Witch is complaining about being cursed with ugliness, she’s still one of the most beautiful women on the planet.

 

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

 

Speaking of actors, aside from the overacting issues mentioned, the characters are brought to life by an incredibly talented cast lineup. The main cast is made up of six actors: Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), James Corden and Emily Blunt (the Baker and his Wife), Meryl Streep (the Witch), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood). While the cast is rounded out by actors such as Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s step-mother) and Tracy Ullman (Jack’s mother), these six carry the action and the story. The jokes are delivered with precise timing, the personality of the characters is found and displayed expertly and, more than anything, these actors can sing.

 

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

 

The soundtrack for this movie is nothing less than beautiful. Even compared to the soundtracks from the staged shows, this soundtrack with these actors is a powerful musical selection. I’ll admit to a bit of apprehension about the soundtrack before it was released; Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd and Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia were not at their best vocally. My fears for this movie, however, were quickly scattered. Though Depp is perhaps the weakest singer of the group, even his number “Hello, Little Girl” was solid, and he was a great choice for the role; he played the pedophilic wolf with a level of weirdness audiences have come to expect from him. Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford, despite their young ages, are quite talented musically; Jack and Little Red Riding Hood have some fun but challenging songs in this film, and they were beautiful to hear. Anna Kendrick was a good fit for Cinderella, and her voice stood out in every song she sang. James Corden and Emily Blunt seemed to have a lot of fun with their songs, and their enthusiasm showed through the music. Meryl Streep, however, was far and away the star vocalist. The Witch gets the largest number of solos in the movie, and all of these songs are emotional and powerful and beautiful. For sheer hilarity, however, my favorite song is “Agony,” sung by the princes about how unfair life is to them (video below).

 

 

Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale play about taking care what you wish for and your wish’s ability to bring you happiness suffered some hiccups in the transition from stage to screen, but it is one of the best film adaptations of a stage musical to date. It is a PG-rated Disney movie, so it is appropriate for all ages, though it did lose some of the dark edge that makes the staged show so popular. There is a filmed version of the stage show on DVD and Netflix, if you’re ever in the mood to see the original. In the meantime, however, the film adaptation is an amazing rendition of a classic play, and one that I would recommend to any fan of good music, musical theatre or fantasy and fairytales.

Into the Woods is in theatres now. It is directed by Rob Marshall, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and is based on the musical play of the same name by Stephen Sondheim.

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