During the last forty years or so what was once the principle source of big screen entertainment along with the western is now relegated to the back of the line. While the musical continues to thrive on Broadway and at regional theaters around the country, younger movie audiences raised not on song and dance but on car chases, excessive gun play and low-brow humor tend to shun stories where characters break into song to express a thought or a feeling. It’s okay if the music is a four minute quickie as in a promotional video for a cable channel, but a whole film consisting of song after song, especially if those songs are unknown? If it’s not animated as in Frozen or Beauty and the Beast, forget it.
Yes, it’s true, Mama Mia did blockbuster business, but that was a jukebox musical of modern pop/rock consisting of songs its audience already knew. The lively sequences were really edited and performed like music videos strung together with the thinnest of stories to connect them making the whole thing palatable for those who normally would never dream of going to a movie musical. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not what musicals are about; at least, not in the West Side Story or The Sound of Music storytelling way.
Considering the above, how amazing is it then that Stephen Sondheim’s 80’s epic musical retelling of classic fairy tales with a very dark spin, Into The Woods, has not only survived an almost twenty year Hollywood development and turnaround but actually made it to the cinemas. And even more amazing is how effective the end result has become. Under director Rob Marshall’s guidance – a man who knows his way around a Broadway stage – Into the Woods remains not only a great musical but has now – against all odds – become a great movie musical.
Five known fairy tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella plus one original tale of The Baker and his Wife, interlock as characters wish for changes in their lives, changes that will eventually come but with consequences. The first half is an upbeat, fast-paced adventure where characters from each story bump into each other, affecting their paths through the woods until they all finally reach that destination of happy ever after. The second half takes a darker route through the woods where characters suddenly discover that being happy ever after can never be entirely true. After all, if you kill the giant at the top of the beanstalk and steal his gold, do you really think the giant’s wife is going to let you get away with that? Every action has a reaction, a life lesson that some characters will learn with devastating results.
Purists will notice differences. The Narrator/Mystery Man is now simply a voice-over telling the story and has no involvement. Some songs are gone, plus, this being a Disney backed production, the sexual awakening of young Red Riding Hood is downplayed, the lascivious Fox no longer sports a comically over-sized codpiece but wears a cartoonish zoot-suit, the Baker’s wife’s adulterous sexual tryst with the prince is reduced to little more than a secret, passionate embrace while Rapunzel’s sad demise is here made a little more happy ever after. The changes may irk those who want their big screen adaptation to be an exact replica of the stage, but if that’s the case they should stick with the available DVD video taping of the Broadway show. Collaborating with Sondheim with some reworking of lyrics and plot changes, Rob Marshall has delivered something thoroughly satisfying. There may be differences but cinematically they work.
This is a good cast. True, many names are there for their marquee-value, but many also have a theatre background before Hollywood beckoned qualifying them for the production. These are actors who can sing as well as act. Meryl Streep’s vocal chops are already known, but there’s also Anna Kendrick who makes a pitch-perfect Cinderella, Emily Blunt as a funny and totally endearing Baker’s wife, and Tracy Ullman who could not be better cast as Jack’s long suffering mother. Plus, young Broadway veteran Lilla Crawford shines as Red Riding Hood with a stunning, powerhouse voice.
Here, Sondheim’s songs are no show-stoppers and they were never meant to be. They flow naturally out of the situation where the emotion a character is feeling is more effectively expressed through song than a mere passing comment. Plus they’re incredibly complicated and witty. When Johnny Depp’s hungry fox is salivating over the idea of devouring Little Red Riding Hood he sings of the excitement of how it feels “…When you’re talking to your meal.” Plus, if you pay attention to Children Will Listen and ponder its meaning, Sondheim’s haunting lyrics should always cause you to seriously rethink what you tell your child and how you say it.
Whether the artistic success of Into the Woods heralds a new emergence of the movie musical or not is doubtful. That same audience that flocked to Jersey Boys on stage never made it to the cinema, Rent bombed, and even the lively and well adapted Hairspray failed to attract the same attention it did at the theatre. Plus, it doesn’t help that other big screen Broadway adaptations such as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and A Chorus Line missed it completely. But Into the Woods is different.
Timing is everything. Perhaps due to the success of Disney’s TV series Once Upon A Time, not forgetting Frozen – two areas that no doubt spurred this production’s turnaround – maybe the merging of fairy tales with Stephen Sondheim will work for those who normally wouldn’t set foot near a musical. It should. Into the Woods, I’m thrilled to announce, isn’t just a great movie, it’s one of the best films of the year.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 125 Minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)