All words: Rachel Kurzius
People often associate musicals with gleaming lines of dancers kicking their legs ever higher during sunny group numbers about being in love or living in a cozy town. Award-winning writer and composer Stephen Sondheim has made it his life’s work to refocus the scope of song-filled plays to cannibal bakeries, the people who tried (and sometimes succeeded) in killing American presidents, the pettiness of the drunk and wealthy, and, in Into the Woods, the farce of “happily ever after.”
Characters from famous fairy tales populate the world of Into the Woods: Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and the Beanstalk, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt, particularly winning) tie all of these stories together in their quest to break The Witch’s (Meryl Streep) spell, which keeps them from having children. All of the characters have something the couple needs to satiate the Witch. By the end of the musical prologue, all of the characters head to the woods to fulfill their wishes. This story structure neatly sets up their convergence.
Into the Woods plays with fairy tale tropes, squaring away the morbid elements in the Brothers Grimm and the more neutered, Disney-fied version to create a tone that is both funny and insightful. Chris Pine shows unforeseen comic chops in deconstructing the archetype of Prince Charming, showing some of the downsides of marrying the equivalent of the guy ripping off his shirt on the cover of a romance novel. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” he says. The movie also shows how awkward it is for Rapunzel to have people climb up her copious hair, and the messiness of having birds do Cinderella’s bidding.
Just as interesting, it plays with the idea of clear villainy that pervades fairy tales. The Wolf (Johnny Depp, playing the same lecherous creep he’s made his wheelhouse) sings about wanting to munch on Little Red Riding Hood’s flesh, and it’s obvious that he is a baddie. Right after that, The Baker tries to steal her red overcoat for the spell. We know that the Baker is a good guy motivated by his desire for a family, but he’s also trying to steal a little girl’s coat. We’re all villains in other people’s stories.
In the play, Act One ends with all of the characters having their wishes fulfilled. Many high school productions end here, which is a travesty, because Act Two tackles the question of what happens when you get exactly what you want. It’s no spoiler that “careful what you wish for” is a major theme here. Magic or not, it’s hard for people to find lasting happiness.
Director Rob Marshall skips the whole Les Miserables idea of having his actors sing live. The musical numbers are well-produced and always keep the story moving along. Marshall trims down the stage version of the show, leaving the movie with a little more than two hours of run time. Unfortunately, the woods themselves look uninspired. Perhaps Marshall purposefully made the set dull to focus all the attention on his dynamite cast, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. These actors would grab attention even in front of neon flashing lights.
Into the Woods is the rare musical that feels substantive, without losing any of its fun. It’s a movie comprised of storybook characters with that’s ultimately about the tales we tell our children – and ourselves – about our world.