Into The Woods. It may not be known to many that the current Disney film has a long story behind it, filled with a quest to bring it to the screen almost as long as the adventure the Childless Baker and his wife set out upon as they travel Into The Woods. The musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine began in 1986 and was soon brought to The Great White Way as it premiered on Broadway in 1987. Sometime in the early 90’s, Penny Marshall staged a reading of “Into The Woods” in hopes of directing a live film with the talents of Robin Williams as The Baker, Goldie Hawn as The Baker’s Wife, Cher as The Witch and Steve Martin as The Wolf. There was singing involved along with production elements never to be seen by the general eye. Penny Marshall’s vision never happened and it soon it was the musical’s book writer James Lapine approaching Disney to pitch his vision. Animated musicals such as “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” by Walt Disney arrived on screens a few years after “Into The Woods” debuted on Broadway. Before these hit animated musicals, James Lapine pitched his idea to Jeffrey Katzenberg who despite being his friend turned down the idea of creating an animated version of his story. Fast forward to today and we now have the musical in all its beauty being shown on the big screen in an adaptation by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). Now audiences, newcomers and old fans, of Sondheim’s musical reflection on community, loss and moving forward, wish-fulfillment and consequences can dare to journey Into The Woods.
Into The Woods, a musical in two acts, follows the original story of The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) as they head out to retrieve “the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold” for The Witch (Meryl Streep) before “the chime of midnight in three days time.” If they successfully find all these items, The Witch will create a potion that will undo a spell cast on The Baker’s family due to the sins of his father. More directly, The Baker and his Wife will no longer be childless. All four items set them on quest that finds them heading into the woods and interacting with several of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale characters. The opening number, “Act One Prologue”, roughly 16 minutes long, introduces us to all the characters we will eventually love, despise, and sympathize with in these dark woods. The cast does a great job of handling the songs and there are never any of the cringe worthy moments people experienced with “Rock of Ages.” Along the way, we meet Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), The Wolf (Johnny Depp), the two Princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). The cast is all very likable and handle each song with its lyrical complexity with ease, some more so than others. Act One of “Into The Woods” is more light-hearted in only that it brings to life the fairy tale characters we know so well. Act Two, which is normally left out of junior and school adaptations, is significant in its violence, adult subject matter, and overall permeating sense of dread. Disney and Rob Marshall should be applauded for handling the complete book of “Into The Woods”, as Act Two could have easily been left out, yet with recent films such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Maleficent”, the darker subject matter seems more suited for what Disney seems to want today. The film works as a whole, but is somewhat uneven in its Act Two as the tone shifts dramatically. Despite the film being rated PG, it’s highly cautioned that the film does head into areas of the woods that may scare children and concern adults. This should be of no surprise to fans of Sondheim, but for those new to his material the extended cameo that Johnny Depp has as Mr. Wolf may raise eyebrows. His number “Hello, Little Girl” is a dark and rumbling number that is aggressive and charming in only a way that Depp could deliver. Parents be cautioned. There’s also a tease of infidelity later in the show.
Chris Pine and Anna Kendrick have what is sure to be the most talked about and enjoyable of scenes as he delivers his first song “Agony” along with Billy Magnussen. It’s a gigantic song that is equally hilarious and heart-felt. Both Pine and Magnussen deliver hammy scenes and over the top performances; if it isn’t clear to theater goers yet, it becomes very clear that Chris Pine has become a today’s version of William Shatner. His Shatnerian acting, delivery, and look (all welcome here) become pure Shatner and while it may turn off some, it’s very fun to watch and one of the consistent highlights throughout the picture. Kendrick, playing Cinderella and the object of the Pine Prince’s affection, is a worthy Cinderella as she contends with her Evil Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and evil step-sisters. Her voice, trademark self-deprecation and uncertainty is felt here and is sure to hold fans over until May 2015’s “Pitch Perfect 2.” Her song “Steps of the Palace” is perfectly done and the young actress would certainly fit well in a Broadway production of “Into The Woods.”
As Chris Pine’s Prince says “The woods could be a dangerous place”, we quickly learn that with this musical we will be taken to a decidedly darker place than we are accustomed to. Disney’s new musical transports us to a magical land filled with danger lurking around every tree, dwindling hope to escape a witch’s curse, the longing for a better life, and the agony of failure. Lyrically Sondheim delivers a diverse spectrum of songs that mirror the human experience. This is unlike any other musical as there is not one sentiment expressed that doesn’t take root deep inside your bones and engages you in a more participating level. But then what would you expect from a Stephen Sondheim musical? “Into The Woods” promises an experience that will provoke thoughts on how much deeper a Disney fairy tale/Stephen Sondheim musical could be. Certainly most that have seen or will see this film will leave unmoved. The moment of surrender is immediate from the opening number; and our journey begins as we head Into The Woods.
Into The Woods gets four out of five stars.