INTO THE WOODS (PG)
Stars: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendricks
Director: Rob Marshall
Screening: general release
THE Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Into the Woods has been making sharp-witted fun at the expense of the Brothers Grimm since it was first staged in 1986. And many of its fans were justifiably worried at the news that it would be brought to the screen by the Disney Company.
Would its gleefully acerbic tone be diluted by the Disney fondness for the feelgood effect? Fears were calmed a little when it was announced the film's director would be Rob Marshall, whose screen translation of Bob Fosse's Chicago caught that musical's street-smart spirit with precision and zest. But Marshall, too, sounded a bit apprehensive about the need not to disappoint. He shouldn't have. There are a couple of changes but the tone hasn't softened a bit.
Set by Meryl Streep, relishing her role as the Witch, it eloquently expresses the show's cautionary theme: be careful what you wish for. Streep's entrance is a whirlwind. Sweeping in on her neighbours, the Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), without the aid of a broomstick, she swiftly lays out the plot and its demands. The couple can't conceive the child they long for because they are cursed. The Witch did the deed herself, enraged by an insult directed at her years earlier by the Baker's long-dead father.
If they want the curse lifted, they must perform a service. She wants a lock of hair, yellow as corn; a red cape; a milky-white cow; and a slipper as pure as gold. And there's only one place where these items can be found. The Baker and his Wife must venture into the woods, where - we've already guessed - they will cross paths with Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Jack and his Beanstalk and Cinderella and her Prince.
Marshall's casting of these characters reflects a nice balance of wit and wisdom, together with a practical appreciation of box-office appeal. The Wolf is Johnny Depp, wearing a black hat and curly whiskers and delivering his lines with a feline purr rather than a vulpine growl. Cinderella is Anna Kendrick, whose soprano is familiar from the campus comedy Pitch Perfect, and her conceited Prince is Star Trek pin-up Chris Pine.
The songs are incorporated into Lapine's screenplay in the recitative mode typical of Sondheim and it works much better on screen for them than it did for the composers of Les Miserables' rousing music and lyrics.
In Marshall, Sondheim has a director who thoroughly understands his melding of the conversational and the melodious. He downplays the theatricality of the piece, goes for the close-up as often as he can and discovers pathos in the most unlikely places. It’s in Streep’s face and voice as she sings Stay with Me to Rapunzel, her daughter. And Blunt and Corden, whom we know best as a comic, anchor the film with their tenderness for one another as they bumble about, straining to fill the Witch’s shopping order.
The clowns are the two preening Princes, whose duet, Agony, is a highlight. Pine also brings the right degree of earnestness to his funniest lines. And as Cinderella’s step-mother, Christine Baranski does what she does best, achieving a happy marriage of hauteur and self-mockery.
Marshall’s cinematographer is Australia's Dion Beebe, who worked with him on Chicago. They found their wood in the English countryside, and the sense of heightened reality they bring to the magic they conjure there really pays off during the denouement, when the supposedly happy endings turn sour and the moral of the piece is unveiled.
In Into the Woods, as in all fairytales, the woods toss up the best and worst of all that life has to offer. Rites of passage wait around every bend in the path. It's not a complete downer - this is a musical, after all. And some high hopes are salvaged from the chaos. But it's a worldly fairytale. Sondheim and Lapine know no other way of working.
Yet amid the cleverness and the wickedly subversive tilt they take, there's an affectionate regard for all of their characters - except maybe the Princes. Their unshakeable vanity is destined to create havoc wherever they go. But the Witch is a tragic figure. Streep makes sure of it with the sense of yearning that colours her malice.