Since debuting on Broadway 27 years ago, Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale musical Into the Woods has won countless awards and gained a strong and very loyal fan-base. It’s hardly surprising that the man who brought us the big screen adaptation of Chicago has once again donned his jazz hands and directed this, with, I’m sure, much the same Oscar-winning expectations. Attracting a ridiculously good cast, including Meryl Streep, probably helps a little bit.
Last time we saw Streep singing was in the gorgeously irritating Mamma Mia!. Her vocals there weren’t exactly angel caresses to the ears (Pierce Brosnan, however, was a treat…!) but she has returned to fight another day, albeit this time with gross fingernails and crazy hair. Joining her are James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife, Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf, Chris Pine as Prince Charming, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and Christine Baranski (Mamma Mia!’s Tanya) as her evil step-mother. They all sing, with some unsurprisingly better than others, leaving little time for actual dialogue but hey, talking is so passé.
Prior to viewing I was not familiar with the storyline of Into the Woods. Sure I knew all of the fairytales in the plot but apart from some rough guess of a wood being evident… nothing. What’s delightfully surprising here is that the fairytales we think we know and love are not strictly present: less Disney, more Brothers Grimm. Into the Woods threatens its audience with a darker approach to beloved fairytales but the results are more interesting than disturbing. The tone is dominantly comic which, as well as needing to be suitable for under-18s, undeniably makes the film less horrific (Cinderella’s step-sisters having their eyes pecked out by birds anyone?!). There’s also a permanent feeling that nobody takes themselves too seriously and that makes Into the Woods far from a cheese fest.
The younger members of the cast, Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood) and Daniel Huttlestone (Jack) do a sterling job at standing their ground with their much more experienced fellow cast-mates. Huttlestone’s voice is perhaps a little shaky at times and Crawford’s too pronounced, but as significant contributors to the film the pressure never seems to settle over them.
Corden is good but unconvincing at times, especially in a key emotional moment in the final act. Kendrick unfortunately has left the cups she fondles so lovingly in Pitch Perfect but she plays the confused Cinderella with dramatic aplomb. Blunt and Pine are excellent with the former especially showing she has great skill as a very talented and versatile actress. Pine’s rendition of ‘Agony’ with onscreen brother Billy Magnussen is an absolute delight as he illustrates his knack for being sickeningly arrogant and endearing simultaneously.
The underlining greatness of Into the Woods is its grey area. It tells us that real life is not about running off into the sunset with your prince or princess and living happily ever after. Real life is about indecision; the path you take personally and with other people. Most importantly, it tells us that people are individuals and orthodoxy is dull.
I highly doubt Into the Woods will mirror Chicago‘s awards success. It has garnered three Golden Globe nominations (Blunt and Streep for performances) but I’d be surprised if it receives any more at the Oscars. That’s certainly not to say the film even remotely suffers. It’s not perfect but gets the best it can out of its cast and the songs are obviously terrific. Like me you might lose all of your friends from singing them constantly. Fingers crossed.
Into the Woods is released in UK cinemas on 9 January 2015.