I have something of a love/hate relationship with musicals. There are some I love, some I hate, and some I can take or leave. And that’s even more true of film adaptations. For instance, I love The Sound of Music in any form, Les Misérables does nothing for me on either stage or screen, and Mamma Mia! is much more fun on stage than its film version. But that’s no surprise – even Meryl Streep looked embarrassed in that. And let’s not even mention Pierce Brosnan’s singing.
So what did I make of Into The Woods then? I’m glad to say I really enjoyed it, because it ticked many boxes.
Just quickly, for those who don’t know, it’s the story of a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who have been cursed by the Witch (Meryl Streep) and cannot have children. But she offers to lift the curse in return for some items to create the spell, and they involve other fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack (of the beanstalk variety) and Rapunzel. So the Baker and his Wife head into the woods to find these items.
But back to the boxes it ticked for me.
Box 1: The original Broadway musical was written by Stephen Sondheim in 1986. I’ve never seen it on stage, but many of the songs are familiar to me. Sondheim has, of course, a strong list of other credits, including the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy, as well as Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He writes intelligent,m complex and memorable songs that know how to tell a story, explore an emotion, often with wit and irony, and without talking down to the audience or labouring a point (unlike Herbert Kretzmer’s English libretto of Les Mis, which I find overwrought and overdone). And that’s why it ticks Box 2.
Box 2: Despite its Disney association, and its fairy tale context, Into The Woods isn’t all saccharine and happy endings. In fact, the ending is far from happy, with a number of deaths, broken marriages and promises, and that’s the point. Sondheim takes these fairy tales and examines what happens after the ‘happy ending’. While the musical, from the start, has a sardonic and slightly satirical tone, the second act, as the characters go further into the woods, becomes much darker – but not as dark as the original stage production, apparently, where Rapunzel dies, the Baker’s Wife does more than kiss the Charming Prince, and her death is much nastier. The musical has been Disneyfied for film, but it still packs a punch. In the very full cinema we saw it in, children were asking if they could leave at the film’s darkest moments. Yes, this isn’t a kid’s film. It reminded me of The Sound of Music – a film as a kid I only ever saw up to Maria’s wedding to Captain Von Trapp. The Nazi invasion of Salzburg was far too dark.
Box 3: A cracking cast delivers some great performances. Of course, Meryl Streep is getting plenty of kudos – deservedly so – for her portrayal of the Witch, breaking her own rule of never playing such a role, but there are other strong performances. James Corden is wonderful as the Baker; his well-meaning bumbling demeanour suits the character perfectly, and I wouldn’t be surprised if director Rob Marshall cast him after seeing him play Craig Owen in the 2011 Doctor Who story Closing Time. Emily Blunt as his Wife is also strong; Chris Pine’s Charming Prince is wonderfully complex, and he succeeds in taking a Disney stereotype and adding darker dimensions to the character. Even Billy Magnussen, as Rapunzel’s Prince, adds more to what could have just been an eye candy role. Anna Kendrick is great as an indecisive Cinderella, and Johnny Depp, for his short time as the Wolf, is perfect.
All of this sells it as a great musical film. They can be curious beasts, and often difficult to get right, but in this case, they have, and this will become one of the best remembered and loved movie musicals in the future. I can guarantee we’ll have it in our DVD collection.