The promotional trailer for the new Disney film musical “Into the Woods” admonishes the characters to “be careful what you wish for.” It’s an apt bit of advice, particularly for fans of the piece.
There’s no doubt that “Woods” is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular (some say, accessible) musicals. It is perennially in production somewhere nearby – often at a high school – and the 1987 Broadway production was filmed for PBS broadcast and then released to home video.
So the announcement it was being adapted into a major motion picture by the team of Disney and Broadway-baby-turned-Oscar-nominated-film-director Rob Marshall made those that revere the work, in the words of Little Red Riding Hood, both “excited and scared.”
The result? Paraphrasing a bit of Cinderella’s assessment of her Prince, “It’s a very nice film. It’s a film made with care. There are cuts, yes, but prudent ones. All in all, it’s quite fair.”
Indeed, Marshall has created a very respectful and entertaining film that does not take too many liberties with the source. Those that were taken had the oversight of Sondheim and playwright James Lapine, both of whom received Tony Awards for score and book in 1987.
Casting the principals with extremely capable but not necessarily household names was a wise choice. Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), James Corden (The Baker), Emily Blunt (The Baker’s Wife), Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood) and Daniel Huttlestone (Jack) deliver engaging performances, giving both the spoken and sung material a fresh, natural quality.
The hammier bits were tossed to the stars. Meryl Streep swirls, growls and poses mightily as the Witch, Johnny Depp offers a suitably louche Wolf. (Both cheat a bit on their high notes.)
Chris Pine acquits himself well as the comically self absorbed Prince, raise to be “charming, not sincere.”
Not singing much, Tracey Ullman remains the mistress of lovable, head-slapping pragmatism as Jack’s Mother and Christine Baranski indulges in raucous, hi-glam wickedness as Cinderella’s Stepmother.
Rather than bracket it into fantasies or delusions as he did with “Chicago” and “Nine,” Marshall seems to have felt free to just let the tightly integrated song score flow. These are, after all, characters for whom saying “It’s the witch from next door!” is not a euphemism.
Adapting a popular work from one medium to another is always fraught. You’ll never please everyone. Here the filmmakers have chosen the safe, well-traveled path through these woods. It might have been more interesting if they had strayed a bit.
Into the Woods
Three and a half stars
Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp
Written by: James Lapine
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes