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Disney’s Into the Woods – Movie Review

Based on the 1987 critically acclaimed Broadway musical, Into The Woods is a mashup story of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. The movie, though, focuses on the story of the Baker and his Wife. The couple has no children. Thanks to the neighboring Witch (Meryl Streep), the Baker learns he cannot have children because of a curse placed on his father for stealing from the Witch’s garden.

Like the stage play, Into The Woods is about wishes. All of the characters have a wish and must complete a mission of sorts in order to receive his wish. But as with life, once we attain our wish, it’s not really what we hoped for. There are also consequences to the choices we make in attaining those dishes too.

Into the Woods 02The Baker and his Wife wish to have the curse reversed and must bring to the witch, Red Riding Hood’s cape, Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s shoe and Jack’s cow. They are not the only ones with wishes. Red Riding Hood wishes to stray from the path and explore the world, but the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp) stands in her way. Jack wishes to get this cow back and steals from the Giants in the sky to earn money to get him/her back. Cinderella wishes to escape the torture of her Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and Stepsisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) and sees marrying the Prince (Chris Pine) as her escape.

As mentioned below, the movie is based on the musical by American composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine. Both played pivotal roles in adapting the play to film. It helps that Rob Marshall is directing the movie. In his Oscar-award winning film, Chicago, Marshall proved that he can perfectly adapt a complicated musical to film and he does an admirable job with Into The Woods.

Into The Woods has all the necessary elements for a musical. The opening number, “Act One Prologue,” has a catchy melody, introduces all the characters and sets the movie in the right directions. As the story progresses, each member of the cast has their own song or monolog. As with any Sondheim musical, the songs are poignant, but at times feel like word puzzles. You really have to pay attention to every word in order to appreciate the brilliance of the song.

Which brings us to the cast, the best musical cast to come along to a movie in a long time. Every role was cast perfectly…almost.  James Corden and Emily Blunt is perfect at the Baker and his Wife. They feel like a real couple and they sing well. James Corden comes across likable and shows his dramatic chops when faced with the reality of parenthood. Into The Woods is a great introduction for him to American audiences when he takes over the Late Late Show.

It’s easy to see Anna Kendrick as Cinderella. She’s beautiful, alluring and a fantastic singer. She kills the song “On the Steps of the Palace.” Chris Pine knows how to play and sing smug. Tracy Ullman is a delight as Jack’s mother.

Unlike the Broadway musical, the roles of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were played by age-appropriate actors. On Broadway, it’s actors in their twenties and in the movie they choose actors in their early teens. They had great voices and act well, they just could not bring the required acting necessary for their individual soliloquy songs.

As a movie, Into The Woods is a good movie but many of the long monologgy songs can be lost in translations. It’s hard to have a clear perspective on the movie itself if you are a big fan of the play. Hard core fans will like the movie but feel that some the brilliant is lost. The devices employed in the stage production don’t often translate well one stage. When the witch belts out the song, “Last Midnight.” It leaves a powerful impact because it’s sung on a stage and the audience sits hundreds of feet from the actress. In the movie, the shots are tight on Meryl Streep, who sings it and she is not required to sing it with the power needed and therefore loses its intensity.

Very few musicals have been effectively translated to the big screen. West Side Story and Chicago are the only two to come to mind. Into The Woods had everything it needs to succeed on the screen including heavy involvement from the original creators, the high budgets and production values of the Walt Disney Company, a cast that can actually sing and do justice to the songs and a director who knows the differences between movie and stage. Unfortunately, maybe Into The Woods is just not meant for the big screen.