INTO THE WOODS. Starring Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, Meryl Streep, Lucy Punch, Christine Baranski, James Corden, Mackenzie Mauzey, Lilla Crawford, Billy Magnussen, Daniel Huttlestone, Frances de la Tour, Tammy Blanchard, Tracy Ullman, Simon Russell Beale, Annette Crosby, Joanna Riding. Directed by Rob Marshall. 124 minutes. Rated PG (adult themes).
This is a lavish production and filled with quite an accomplished cast. Those who go to see the film without any previous knowledge may be taken aback and will have to adapt themselves to a style of musical theatre, which is a blend of the very theatrical treatment along with attempts at realism, all in the cause of telling fairy stories in words and music.
For many audiences, this is a great opportunity, a spectacular opportunity in fact, to be part of a Stephen Sondheim musical. From West Side Story and for over more than half a century, Sondheim has created many musical theatre pieces, often adapting films and plays, using his characteristic recitatif style for the singers and his own idiosyncratic mood melodies for the musical score. Not necessarily to everyone’s taste.
But Into The Woods offers a rare opportunity for Sondheim lovers and those who wonder what his style is like.
It should be said that this is not a light entertainment. Even though it combines the stories of many familiar fairytales, it is not the sweetness and light of the fairytales but rather the grim aspects of storytelling, tales of the dark side of human nature, at times truly grim fairytales.
The film begins, Sondheim-style, with many of the characters, seen in a variety of situations, combining with the recitation of what it is to go into the woods. This introduces the range of characters which include Cinderella, her stepmother and the ugly sisters, the town baker and his wife, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel in her tower, Jack and his mother, the ugly witch and Prince Charming and his friends. The song also offers the opportunity for audiences to identify, quite quickly, the cast with characters. We find Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard as her stepmother and the sisters, James Corden and Emily Blunt as the baker and his wife, the Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood, Mackenzie Mauzey as Rapunzel, Daniel Huttlestone and Tracy Ullman as Jack and his mother, Meryl Streep as the witch, Chris Klein as the Prince. A number of prominent British character actors have small cameos. They include stage actors like Simon Russell Beale, Annette Crosby, Joanna Riding, Frances de la Tour.
While all of them give striking performances, there is the exception with Chris Pine as the Prince, not particularly charming, not particularly persuasive, even though he is offering something of a sendup of charming princes. It is James Corden and Emily Blunt as the baker and his wife who offer the most humanity. And by way of postscript, Johnny Depp has a very brief appearance as a rather odd Wolf.
At the core is a curse by the witch on the baker and his wife, hoping for children, but the witch preventing pregnancy until she collects four items belonging to the fairytale characters, Jack’s white cow, Red’s Riding Hood, Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s slipper. This provides occasion for strange adventures in the woods as well as a number of musical interludes.
One of the major complications is that the baker pays for Jack’s cow with some beans which are carelessly tossed away leading to the growth of the giant Beanstalk and the descent of the giants to earth, with the need to combat them and destroy them. Another complication is that of the witch who has abducted Rapunzel as a little girl and kept in a tower, pretending to be her mother, transformed after she obtains all her desired objects into a much more familiar Meryl Streep.
This is not a story of happy endings, especially for the baker and his wife, which takes some time for an emotional adjustment. For those in the know, they will have a lavish Sondheim experience. For those not in the know, there may be more pleasure in reflecting on what they have seen than in the experience while they watched the film.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 8, 2015.