The musical Into the Woods premiered on Broadway in 1987. James Lapine wrote the book for it. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics. Sondheim is revered in the theatre community. He's won multiple Grammy and Tony Awards. Sondheim and Lapine even shared the Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George.
Their 1987 musical was a success. Into the Woods was originally nominated for 10 Tony Awards. It won three, including one for Lapine and one for Sondheim. It had a great run. There was a Broadway revival in 2002, which added characters and removed others. In 2010, more changes were made for the Regent Park production, outside London. This film adaptation, written by James Lapine and directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago and Nine), is a mash-up of those three versions.
This is rather appropriate because the musical is itself a mash-up of several fairytale stories. It actually takes the Cinderella story, the Jack and the Beanstalk story, the Little Red Riding Hood story and the Rapunzel story, and combines and crosses those story-lines, wondering what if those characters interacted. The musical did it first, but, for the past four years, Disney and ABC has had Once Upon a Time, which has been a series that is still currently doing a fairytale mash-up, arguably one more intriguing than this one.
The way Lapine connects the four fairy-tales is through a new character named the Baker, played by James Corden (The History Boys and Begin Again), and the Baker's Wife, played by Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada and Edge of Tomorrow). How it connects all four stories is through a witch's curse placed on the Baker and his Wife.
In order to break the witch's curse, the Baker and his Wife have to gather four items. Those four items are four signature items from each of the four fairy-tales in question. The movie is then essentially a treasure hunt and/or heist for the Baker and his Wife to find and possess those items. It all starts with the Baker and his Wife making a wish. The fairytale characters make wishes too, and, by the end, the film collapses on the cliché point of "be careful what you wish for."
The songs are fine and help to tell the story and reveal character motivation and feelings. A dozen songs or so are performed, but there were only four performances that I enjoyed or that impressed me. One was by Daniel Huttlestone (Les Misérables) who plays Jack from the Jack and the Beanstalk story. He really belts out his song "Giants in the Sky" in a knockout way. The second was by Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Billy Magnussen who is a Tony Award-nominee for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Pine and Magnussen do a duet called "Agony" that was funny and just entertaining. The third song that impressed me was the "Your Fault" song toward the end, which was also pretty hilarious.
Meryl Streep co-stars as the Witch. Her swan song in the film is probably the most delightful thing in the entire movie, both sonically and visually, and it was the fourth performance that really impressed me. Streep's performance in general starting with her first appearance on screen is what makes this movie tolerable at all. She is wonderful as she usually is. The brief appearance of Johnny Depp as the Wolf was a highlight as well. His singing in Sweeney Todd was probably better, but he has a very short gender-bending moment that was very funny and delightful.
All that being said, there are a lot of issues. There's a weird hesitancy on this film's part to depict death. The way that the Cinderella story was told was really poor. Its cross-over with the Baker and his Wife's story was oddly handled, if not poorly done as well.
Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect) plays Cinderella, the young woman who lives with her stepmother, played by Christine Baranski (The Good Wife), and her two stepsisters who abuse her and make her do all the housework. She's constantly covered in ash and dirt until a magical fairy transforms her into a beautiful princess in order to attend the Prince's ball. The problem is that the film has no scenes between Cinderella and the fairy or even Cinderella and the Prince, played by Chris Pine. The relationship or lack thereof is not developed on screen.
This is indicative of the flaw in the structure of the movie, which probably comes from the structure of the stage musical. We see Jack climbing the beanstalk but we never actually see him in the land of the giants. More than half of his adventure happens off screen and then is sung later. This works fine for a stage production, but in a movie Marshall could have actually shown it.
Three Stars out of Five. Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material. Running Time: 2 hrs. and 4 mins.