Into the Woods, review: glossy Disney adaptation softens Stephen Sondheim’s message

Rob Marshall's adaptation of the classic musical stars Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and James Corden

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★★★

Admirers of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s hit musical of the 1987 Broadway season will find director Rob Marshall’s movie adaptation a mixed blessing. Always terrific to see the work of Sondheim, one of the greatest composer/lyricists of all time, make it to the big screen, the hope is it will be transferred with every spellbinding nuance and emotional enchantment intact.

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That hasn’t happened here primarily because of the Walt Disney imprimatur. How ironic that the original show was designed to comment on the sanitisation of fairy tales in the classic Disney animation tradition and now that very studio has softened those exact observations raised within its chamber-piece concept. Sure, Into the Woods is a glossy, starry, superbly produced melodious confection. But that was never the point and Disney reinforcing their Princess values merely undercuts the core message that there really is no “Happily Ever After” in real life.

The complicated plot intertwines the traditional fairy tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel with a new story about a baker and his wife, who must steal items from each character to break the curse of childlessness placed on them by a witch. A golden slipper, a white cow, a red cape and corn-yellow hair do indeed reverse the curse and everyone seems to get what they’ve always wished for.

On stage, the loosening of those familiar Brothers Grimm/Hans Christian Andersen story-book bindings is a clever satire on folklore clichés and comprised a self-contained Act One. Act Two had the mood – and series of lyrically dexterous, jaunty tunes – turning far darker as the characters pay the price for their good fortune; the vengeful, widowed giantess wreaks murderous havoc on the kingdom, Cinderella’s Prince is a philanderer, Rapunzel’s royal lover is blinded by thorns and the witch loses her powers.

Most of the problems occur in Marshall’s shortened and reconstructed cautionary conclusion as the chaotic whirl of the familiar gone awry doesn’t crystallise in the way it should because of the half-hearted attempts to keep the atmosphere upbeat and buoyant. Marshall’s movie adaptations of Chicago and Nine prove he is more musical savvy than most, but here he fails to connect the melancholia about the human condition as amplified in the anthems “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone” with his self-confessed desire to craft a 21st-century fable for the post 9/11 generation.

Sondheim and Lapine purposely addressed larger issues about taking responsibility for your actions, putting community interests first and helping each other navigate life’s many hurdles – the woods acting as a symbol for the big wide world. It’s hardly surprising but significant that what remains in Disney’s variation after all the death, cruelty and destruction – here moved further backstage to make it more child-friendly – is an accidental family unit and a support of Mouse House values set in stone since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

No quibbles about the perfect casting, though. Standouts are Meryl Streep channelling the Wicked Witch of the West in a firecracker performance complete with panto costume swirling and virtual tornado disappearances. Chris Pine is a faultless Prince with the best song “Agony” (a witty one-upmanship duet with Rapunzel’s beau Billy Magnussen) and best line, “I said I was charming, not sincere”. Anna Kendrick brings depth to the routine Cinderella and her “On the Steps of the Palace” ditty is a delight. And it’s wonderful to see Tracey Ullman back on screen as Jack’s mother, too. James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski all turn in sterling work while Johnny Depp’s wolf cameo couldn’t do much more to bring out the subliminal lasciviousness of the song “Hello, Little Girl”.

Like Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods is sung throughout and may prove a challenge to certain Disney audiences expecting something more like Frozen. Yes, it’s a visual marvel and all the fairy-tale components are present and correct. And yes, it works as a piece of musical art with many diverse levels. It’s just that there are less profound textures here than originally created (written in the 1980s, the giantess was seen as a metaphor for the arbitrary nature of the Aids epidemic), despite the haunting quality of “No One Is Alone” remaining long after the poignant ‘Once upon a Time’ motifs have faded.

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Into the Woods is in cinemas now