If you want to see the wellspring of the modern Disney fantasy machine, look no further than Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 musical Into the Woods. It’s a knotty bundle of fairy tales from Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel to Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella that Sondheim and James Lapine wove together into a funny and fresh narrative.
This narrative begins with a Baker and his Wife who are cursed with infertility by their witch neighbor. They can only break the curse by gathering up four talismans that helpfully bring all the other characters into play: “The cow as white as milk / The cape as red as blood / The hair as yellow as corn / The slipper as pure as gold”. The prologue includes an undertone as well, when the Baker adds, “I wish we had a child,” the juxtaposition typical of Sondheim’s best work, layered like so many fairy tales. Some 25 years ago, however, such layering was not the sort of thing that Disney’s heroes and gamines sang about. But the play’s reassessing of fairy tale tropes, its reinvigorating them with old Grimm’s blood and thunder, looked forward to the spunky heroines and broad-chested prince-villains who later cropped up in everything from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen.
Now, Disney brings Sondheim’s show to the screen. By now, Into the Woods the movie is reminiscent of previous live-action Disney fairy tales, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) to Maleficent, comic bookish event films combining special effects magic and dour themes. Happily, the new film leaves the stage musical generally intact, with only a few Sondheim-approved snips. Indeed, as the Disney logo is obscured by crawling vines and branches of the mythical wood, Rob Marshall’s’ movie seems almost Tim Burton-esque, taking from his Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (a DreamWorks’ project), the darkest way through Sondheim.
Into the Woods is a richer and more energetic musical than Sweeney Todd. True, most of the new film uses the familiar device of interlocking storylines, here about princesses and magic beans and a certain red-caped girl whose grandmother’s been eaten by a wolf. But behind all that, Sondheim has crafted a sometimes glib but also intelligent examination of dreams and the dangers of their fulfillment. The mysterious woods are something of an all-purpose metaphorical zone where anything might happen, for better and worse. The repetition of “I wish” starts to sound foreboding, opening the door to risks that materialize the kingdom-wide devastation of the final act. Other sorts of risky wishes have to do with children: songs by Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) reference pubescent curiosities in obvious manners that could leave some adults queasy.
But if Sondheim tends to lecture, Marshall likes to show off logistical skills. His Chicago was no masterpiece, but its flash-bang sensory assault fulfilled Bob Fosse’s desire: “Razzle dazzle ‘em / and they’ll never catch wise”. For Into the Woods, he pulls back on the style and zooms in on his performers and the music itself.
It’s a smart choice, enhanced by the strong cast performing the film’s lilting tunes and witty lyrics. As the hapless Baker and his smarter Wife, James Corden and Emily Blunt generate enough frustrated and loving comedy to power the film on their own. Blunt in particular makes clear the Wife’s conflicting loyalties and deep yearnings, acting while singing (most everybody else does the normal thing and leaves the acting to the dialogue laced in between the big numbers). Johnny Depp’s sly wolf and Anna Kendrick’s plucky Cinderella are both variations on old tropes that are knowing without falling into the wink-wink category.
Into the Woods’s cast is also notable for what it doesn’t include: a performer cast for being a star and not singing ability. It’s a delight that the one seemingly out-of-place performer — Chris Pine, as the self-important Prince chasing after an indecisive Cinderella — turns out to have a Broadway-quality voice. You can easily imagine him belting out a Rodgers and Hammerstein curtain-dropper to the back row without a microphone. And his princely smarm (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”) is as potent as his voice. Meryl Steep’s Witch enters big, blowing the door off the Baker’s cabin and dutifully disappearing in a flurry of smoke and squealing rats. Similarly campy for most of the movie, Cinderella’s stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch) end up suffering a gruesome punishment late in the film, in a scene that might leave parents questioning the movie’s PG rating.
This bit of vengeful closure has little to do with Into the Woods‘ primary themes, including the distrust of appearances and the forging of makeshift families. While these are underlined in the film’s dragging final act, they find an effective climax in another heart-stopping song, “No One is Alone”, that helps push this often cynical exercise in fairy tale reverb into something approaching sincerity.