into-the-woods

Into the Woods is a musical unruined by the transition from stage to screen, which is pretty much the best we can hope for when it comes to Stephen Sondheim adaptations. Helmed by Rob Marshall – the former theatre choreographer who elevated Chicago and was crushed by the execrable Nine – this 1987 Tony winner isn’t so much made grander for the big screen as it is compressed; characters combined, songs cut, grisly deaths now less grisly. (It is a Disney picture, after all. Imagine the massacre if they’d been left to alter the ingredients of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.) Yet, the essence of the thing remains, eliciting shivers on occasion. That’s probably due mostly to Sondheim’s still ingenious, winding, absurdly catchy and often profound numbers, staged nicely and performed with great ceremony by the cast. No musical is unwreckable though, so, seriously, let’s acknowledge the bullet dodged here.

The stage production largely takes place within the twisted wood where the fairytales of Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood intersect and mutate. The first act sees their fantastical stories play out as expected; the second shows the violent, random, emotional repercussions of their actions upon returning to reality. Rather than utilising Disney’s deep pockets to make Sondheim and James Lapine’s grim parable seem epic, Marshall lets the labyrinthine thickets trap his characters – just as they are by the circumstances of their stories and narrowly ascribed personalities – and forces them to circle back upon one another, only granting escape once truly valuable life lessons are learned, at great cost. (The sets are convincing. Well, convincing enough.) The major moral: fairytales will not prepare you for the cruel and chaotic real world. This coming from Disney. Mea culpa much, Mickey?

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The story of the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) is the pivot on which all these tales turn. Hoping to lift a curse on their house and be granted a baby, they venture into the woods to steal items from Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of the Beanstalk fame, and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), as instructed by their vengeful neighbour, the Witch (Meryl Streep). Their actions circuitously provide Jack with magic beans and save Red from the Wolf (Johnny Depp, in a mercifully brief turn) and finally deliver the Bakers a baby. Those happy endings, however, are short lived. As are all of ours, I suppose. The story keeps on going, longer for some than others.

James Lapine, who penned the play’s book, returns to smartly condense (but not water down) his original into a screenplay. Streep and Blunt take on the parts made famous by Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason on Broadway, and they’re about the calibre of actress you’d need to fill the cavernous voids left by Peters and Gleason. It’s fitting that the two richest roles are afforded the two finest performances. Blunt, in particular, is a comic delight (especially after an encounter with Chris Pine’s preening Prince Charming) and also delivers the emotional apex of the flick alongside the appealing Corden. Crawford is excellent too. Red Riding Hood’s shrill recitation of “into the woods” during the prologue is precisely the kind of Sondheim-y touch you hope won’t be lost in translation, and Crawford’s register does not disappoint. She even skilfully navigates the confronting ‘I Know Things Now’, a report of her adult encounter with the Wolf (“scary is exciting”). She was actually a late addition to the cast following the firing of Sophia Grace; as in, the girl who sang Super Bass on Ellen. Another bullet dodged. This century, you have to measure movie musicals by the ways they almost didn’t work. This one, at least, does frequently.

Into the Woods arrives in Australian cinemas January 8, 2015.