Almost 30 years on from its Broadway stage debut, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s melancholic fairytale mash, Into The Woods, has finally hit the big screen. In the capable harmonious hands of Chicago’s director Rob Marshall, the Disney made feature is a lite holiday affair, though it never strays too far from its eerily erotic origins.
The plot – a pastiche pantomime of famous fairytale characters – is a fanciful guise for a much darker story, a Brothers Grimm story if you like. At its heart, Into The Woods is a cautionary tale of growing up in dangerous world and everything that lies beyond “happy ever after”.
Marshall’s ensemble cast is an eclectic one, from seasoned Oscar actors to comedians and British thespians. Screen queen Meryl Streep seems misplaced in a Disney tale, but seems to revel in her role as a turquoise, taloned witchy-poo – aptly named, The Witch. British talents James Corden (Gavin & Stacey, One Chance) and Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria, Edge of Tomorrow) play The Baker and The Baker’s Wife, a couple traumatised by their inability to conceive.
When they discover their barrenness is not their fault, and in fact a curse bestowed upon The Baker’s father (Simon Russell Beale) by The Witch next door many years ago, they demand its reversal. Fortunately, she agrees, but not without a catch. The couple must gather the ingredients she needs to make a restorative potion, with items from fellow fairytale icons.
The requirements: a golden slipper from Cinderella, (Pitch Perfect songstress Anna Kendrick goes from mopey maid to sparkling princess), a cape as red as blood off the precocious Little Red Riding Hood, (big-screen newcomer Lilla Crawford, from Broadway’s Annie), hair the colour of corn (although it clearly isn’t) from long-locked Rapunzel (doll-faced Mackenzie Mauzy), and a cow as white as milk from Jack (Les Miserables’ Daniel Huttlestone), a bonny lad and his mum (a cockney Tracey Ullman) yet to inherit an infamous hessian bag of beans.
Cinderella’s ugly caricatured step-sisters (Tammy Blanchard and Hot Fuzz’s Lucy Punch) round out the cast, lopping off toes and heels left right and centre to fit the missing slipper, spearheaded by their leech-like mother (The Grinch and The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski in fine form).
However, the scene stealing comes from the film’s two Prince Charmings – Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot) and Billy Magnussen. The pair are hilarious as boastful brothers – vain, self-absorbed and pining (excuse the pun) for the affections of Cinderella and Rapunzel respectively. The best scene? The pitiful pair frolicking competitively and open-shirted in a fountain singing ‘Agony’.
Kooky cat Johnny Depp is brief but bawdy in Mad Hatter form as the Big Bad Wolf, a seedy and predatory take on the classic Red Riding Hood villain. His seduction song, ‘Hello Little Girl’, has undeniably pedophiliac connotations (see lyrics “tender and fresh/not one lump”) that even Disney struggled to skirt around. The same too goes for Jack’s song ‘Giants In The Sky’, where he refers to the lady giant he met at the top of the beanstalk as drawing him close “to her Giant breast/And you know things now that you never knew before”. Creepy huh?!
Appearance wise, it was a good move to make Depp half-human, half-wolf – basically, Terry Thomas teeth in a zoo suit – to add to the character’s mysterious magnetism, especially considering every other creature is real and not CGI, including the giant who is portrayed by uber-tall British actress Frances de la Tour).
Story wise, Into The Woods is pretty faithful to the original stage production, the tone getting deeper and darker in the second half. Apart from a few unavoidable lyrics, disturbing side-stories have been mostly cut to make it more family-friendly for its summer holiday release, which is understandable but disappointing for older audiences.
Unlike the beloved fairytales of your childhood, the girl does NOT get the prince, and thankfully so, for here he’s a sleazy cad! Many maternal figures die in the film, leaving the iconic “and they all lived happily ever after” up in the air metaphorically (and literally if you count the beanstalk).
For fans of fun movies not musicals, yes, the singing will get monotonous, with the sweet sing-song melodies of Kendrick and Blunt grating sooner than they should. Corden, though usually hilarious, only gets a few laughs in this outing and is definitely the least entertaining of the boys.
Into The Woods is a mostly light n’ lively take on the classic fairytales we know and love, with sickly-sweet singing for the kids and deliciously dark sub-text for the adults.