Fairyland has long been the setting for human nightmares as well as our frothier, happier dreams. Plumbing the dark side of fairytales and their Jungian archetypes on the page, onstage and onscreen has become commonplace nowadays; but when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods premiered on Broadway in 1987, its murky approach to nursery staples like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk still seemed radically innovative. That’s likely because 20th-century Westerners grew up mostly on bowdlerized versions of stories that, in their traditional forms and even as recorded by the likes of the Brothers Grimm, were laden with moral ambiguity, violence, eroticism and gore. The stage musical restored some of those qualities, and audiences used to the sanitized kiddie translations were electrified.
A lot has changed in the decades since; we don’t need to be told anymore that the woods in a folktale symbolize the unconscious, or that every fairytale witch or wicked stepmother is just one’s own good/evil Mom once removed, or that the Big Bad Wolf represents Little Red’s dawning awareness of her own sexuality and its effect, intended or no, on male humans. We get all that, and it lends depth to our appreciation of these hoary old stories. But Hollywood may have gone a little too far in releasing three different movie treatments of the Red Riding Hood theme in a single recent year. Overanalysis, oversaturation or cheesy exploitation can kill the magic in these resonant ancient stories.
So one cannot be blamed for feeling a little anxious about the results of the long-awaited movie adaptation of Into the Woods, several earlier attempts at which floundered for the usual variety of Hollywood reasons. Had its time come and already gone? Are we too jaded now? Or would state-of-the-art CGI effects become the whole show?
Happily, that has not happened, and the play’s appeal has mostly survived the transition to the big screen. Indeed, the ability to shoot scenes against real-world backdrops like English country villages, castles, fields and waterfalls serves to open up the rather uniformly claustrophobic setting of the play, even though most of the crucial scenes still happen in the dark depths of the primordial forest.
Most of the credit for the success of Rob Marshall’s cinematic production can be put down to two sources: a topnotch cast and the durable music. Deceptively straightforward and repetitive on the surface, Into the Woods is actually one of the composer’s most sophisticated and convoluted scores. This being Sondheim, these are no lightweight Broadway musical numbers; they stay relevant because they work on multiple levels, drawing on both the childlike and the horrific qualities of fairytale. He layers bright, simple patterns, darkens and enfolds them in upon themselves in ways that evoke the mesmerizing fugue state of nightmares, sucking us in the way that Cinderella’s slipper gets stuck in pitch on the palace steps or the witch ultimately gets swallowed up by the earth.
Ah yes, that witch: In the stage version the Baker’s Wife is arguably the central character, but here it’s Meryl Streep who, unsurprisingly, takes control of the story. And that makes some sense, narrativewise, since the witch is really the only primary character who doesn’t try to gloss over hard truths with romanticizing and rationalization; she’s our way in from the workaday world. Streep is magnificent as always, but it’s a special treat to see her given an unaccustomed opportunity to exercise her considerable comedic gifts. And who knew that she could sing, and well? I kept looking in the closing credits for the name of the voiceover artist who dubbed her songs, but nope: All the cast members do their own singing.
Emily Blunt is excellent and also sings well as the Baker’s Wife, and James Corden makes a strong impression as her husband who needs to learn to be a partner and father once he finally gets his wish for a child. Anna Kendrick is great as a no-nonsense, thoroughly proletarian Cinderella who isn’t that impressed with handsome princes when all is said and done; she just wants her dysfunctional stepfamily to stop tormenting her and let her go dancing once in a while.
There is wry humor scattered throughout this very dark play, and certain players here make the most of it. Possibly my favorite was the great British comedienne Tracey Ullman in what could be a thankless role as Jack’s shrewish mother; I would’ve liked to see her get more screentime. Johnny Depp is equal parts funny and creepy, portraying the Wolf as an out-and-out stalker in a terrific furry zoot suit and Snidely Whiplash-style curly mustachios. Unfortunately, the 13-year-old who plays Little Red, Lilla Crawford, proves a weak foil for Depp as far as acting chops; worse, she’s costumed and made up to look younger than her years – not nearly pubescent enough to optimize the theme of dark sexual discovery. The other child actor, Daniel Huttlestone, fares much better as the dim-but-plucky Jack.
But the laugh-out-loud number in Into the Woods is “Agony,” the duet of the two preening princes, here delivered by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. Pine – who plays the young Captain Kirk in J. J. Abrams’ updated Star Trek movie franchise – takes the piece to a meta level by channeling William Shatner’s trademark hammy acting and smug exhibitionism into Prince Charming. The director even lets both princes rip their jerkins open to display their well-toned pecs, just as the original Kirk regularly did – a bit of playfulness that might have come off as too fleeting and self-referential a cultural meme, but as executed would still seem funny even if you’d never seen a Star Trek episode.
Such foolery serves to leaven a play that is essentially pessimistic about human nature, in which the characters only rally to behave well toward one another when cooperation becomes necessary to their survival. Otherwise, says Into the Woods, we are creatures forever unsatisfied with our lots in life and inclined to ruin our children through either smothering or neglect. Still, it’s nice to be able to enjoy the accessible pleasures of a stage musical – or a reasonably well-rendered screen treatment of one – without sacrificing emotional depth and provocation to do a bit of soul-searching. Like most long-cherished wishes that eventually come true, the translation of this play into a cinematic medium is a mixed blessing, but it mostly works.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.