The journey from stage to screen has been a remarkably long one for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods.
The comedic musical drama first began its transition from Broadway (where it opened in 1987) to the big screen over 20 years ago, languishing in development before finally being taken up, appropriately enough, by director Rob Marshall, whose 2002 Oscar-winning adaptation of Chicago kick-started Hollywood’s ongoing renewed affection for musicals.
That lengthy gestation period allows Into the Woods, a meta-mashup of Grimm Brothers fairy tales from a decidedly ironic yet sentimental viewpoint, to arrive in theaters amid a flurry of fantastical franchises dominating the box office. (If only this adaptation had materialized when the moviegoing public was in the full throes of Harry Potter-dom.)
The sly send-up of fantasy tropes and healthy doses of humor help Into the Woods feel very much like the books and films it gently satirizes, even as it stands on its own as a solid entry into the musical-fantasy genre.
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Indeed, the story setting Woods’ plot in motion is the stuff of a thousand fables: A childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) discover a curse upon their house, cast by a vindictive witch (Meryl Streep), who reveals that the curse can be reversed with the acquisition of four special, specific items.
Tasked with tracking said items down in three days’ time, the baker and his wife set off for the forest, where they cross paths with a slew of fairy-tale familiars: Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford); Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Jack, of “and the Beanstalk” fame (Daniel Huttlestone), among others.
The plot twists and turns, upending expectations and showcasing Sondheim’s trademark time signature shifts, which the glittering cast mostly handles with aplomb. Corden, Blunt, Kendrick and Streep (her rendition of Stay With Me is a heartbreaking showstopper) handle the bulk of the singing, and each rises to the considerable challenge of the knotty lyrics. Even the film’s Prince Charming, Chris Pine — that’s Captain Kirk to you Star Trek reboot fans — proves a deft comedic singer during his highlight, Agony. The less said about Johnny Depp’s mercifully brief crooning as the Wolf, the better.
Lapine adapted his musical book for the film, and Marshall’s restless staging — there are long stretches where the shadows swallow all the action — can occasionally make Woods feel more grim and manic than it really is.
Despite marketing suggesting otherwise, parents toting children to the film might be caught somewhat off-guard by Into the Woods’ occasionally bleak tone, particularly in the film’s second half.
There are ribald allusions sprinkled throughout, but the giant attack-fueled portion of the story goes to some dark places. (Purists might complain about the abrupt transition between the musical’s first and second acts, just as anyone coming to the story fresh might be confused by the sudden transition from breezy comedy to sobering drama.)
Still, the intrusion of “real life” into fantasy feels particularly timely in an age of paranoia, unrest and terror abroad; acknowledging that reality always awaits after every story’s end gives the finale a surprising emotional wallop.
Marshall’s cinematic adaptation aims to find the feeling behind the fables, and largely succeeds, making these Woods rather lovely, dark and deep.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713
Into the Woods
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Rob Marshall
Cast: James Corden, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick
Rating: PG (thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and suggestive material)
Running time: 124 min.