Personally, I could not be more thrilled about the resurgence of the movie musical that has occurred in the last decade or so. I am fortunate to have grown up in a home where musicals are acclaimed. I grew up watching my parents’ VHS tapes of Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls, and Hello Dolly, among others, and listening to soundtracks in the car. There was a time when movies steered away from putting song and dance on the silver screen. But starting with the success of Rob Marshall’s fabulous Chicago (2002), more and more musicals have graced our movie theaters. Hairspray (2007), Rent (2005), Sweeney Todd (2007), Dreamgirls (2006), Mamma Mia! (2008), and of course the wonderful Les Misêrable (2012) have brought joy to the masses and showcased the great singing voices of such stars as Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway. Some have been better than others but overall, audiences have been lucky indeed.
In addition to the video and audio tapes, I was lucky enough to see live musicals every few months growing up and continue to, making me above-average knowledgable of the phenomenal genre that is musical theater. But one show that I never saw nor listened to was Stephen Sondheim’s fairy tale epic, Into the Woods. So when I heard a movie version was being made with an all-star cast, I was thrilled. Now that I’ve seen the movie, I can attest that the excitement build-up was deserved.
Movies have the ability to take us out of our own world and bring us to far away places. If you are not a fan of a good magic-filled, make-believe story, then this wouldn’t be the movie for you. Or if you don’t like musicals, then obviously you won’t like it. And this movie is 99% singing, like an opera. There is very little dialogue that isn’t set to music. But if you, like me, enjoy when movies take you to other worlds and utilize fantasy and magic, and enjoy films filled with fantastic music, then you will be as pleased with Into the Woods as I was.
The movie is a who’s who of fairy tale characters – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and his beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood, and the plot is stuffed to the brim with the intricacies and touching aspects of their respective dilemmas.
Being unfamiliar with the music had me extra excited going in and I was delighted with the results. Sondheim’s music and lyrics are out of this world. His lyrics are intricate with stellar rhymes and patterns, and the melodies are unique and delightful. Not many of the songs are sing-along types, but they are all interesting to listen to; some songs are pretty, some haunting, some funny.
What else makes this movie a winner? The cast is STELLAR. Let’s start with the great Meryl Streep, the biggest draw. The legendary actress showed off her pipes in Mamma Mia! but she excels here. Her Witch is the main antagonist but Streep’s epic acting abilities lead viewers to sympathize for her at times. Streep not only acts the part perfectly but performs the talk/patter “Prologue” and the show’s major hit “Children will Listen” with equal parts ease and excellence.
Emily Blunt and James Corden play the story’s beating heart – the Baker and Baker’s Wife who go on a magical journey in the woods to find the ingredients the “witch next door” needs to reverse a spell that left the couple barren. Blunt has never shown off her singing chops before and was reportedly nervous to do so, but for no reason. She is a strong singer and is wonderful and lovable in the role. English actor (and Tony-winner for the play One Man, Two Guvners) Corden does a nice job too and you root for them the whole time. My only critique is that the loving married couple have no romantic chemistry. Corden plays the role (as written) as a kind of goofy, immature man afraid to be a father. But he doesn’t seem like a great husband either and they certainly don’t have any kind heat between them, even during a song that is all about how in love they feel. They seem more like friends or brother and sister.
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of the film for me was Johnny Depp, who I adored in Sweeney Todd (and basically everything he’s in). He does a fantastic job in his supporting role as The Big Bad Wolf. His zoot suit-wearing, furry bad guy is intriguing and alluring, which is why Little Red Riding Hood is so drawn to him. Depp sings his enticing come-on tune “Hello, Little Girl” to perfection, leaving me wishing he had more songs. The song is laced with grrr’s and growls that make the performance extra special. But the fact that he only had that one makes the scene precious and one of my favorites in the film.
Speaking of Little Red, Broadway’s Matilda star Lilla Crawford was just flawless. She has a sweet, pretty face, porcelain skin, and jet black hair. She perfectly looks the part and is pleasurable to look at in general. You easily understand why the Wolf was so aroused when he saw her. Crawford’s looks matched with her talented voice create a spot-on complete package. Crawford really stands out for me when I think back on the ensemble, which is really saying something because I liked every performance.
Everyone knows Anna Kendrick is a skilled singer thanks to Pitch Perfect and the 2003 cult musical Camp. As Cinderella, Kendrick has one of the other major roles in the film and she shines. Her voice is ideally suited for Sondheim songs and she easily portrays Cinderella’s ambivalence over marrying the prince. Kendrick seems to do no wrong and her part in this film is no exception.
Speaking of the prince, someone who surprises with his singing voice is Chris Pine as Prince Charming. He looks like he stepped off a Siegfried & Roy tribute act and is as charming as he is insincere. One of the other highlights of the film belongs to Pine and Billy Magnussen, who plays his brother and love/savior of Rapunzel (played by the gorgeous MacKenzie Mauzy). The two of them are pining (pun intended) over their hard-to-reach loves during the song “Agony,” which is a fun, comedic scene in a story filled with darker, sadder moments. There are numerous moments of humor but this scene received the biggest laughs.
Remember the young boy in Les Mis who was part of the French rebellion, stealing scenes with his cuteness and great cockney singing voice? He is back. Daniel Huddlestone is Jack of beanstalk fame and he does a great job as well. Not knowing he was in the film made seeing him onscreen an awesome surprise, as his role in Mis was impactful and easily remembered. Jack’s mother is played by comedienne Tracey Ullman, who plays the role to a tee and sing/talks her role very well.
I went on and on about the cast because the ensemble truly shines. As far as the film itself, the first two-thirds are excellent. It is magical and fun, allowing for a fairy-dust quality to take over the audience. But once the Giant comes to the woods in the third act, the movie loses some of its steam. It is also the “after the happy ending” part so it is by definition not as upbeat or fun. But even my attention started to waiver a bit, despite loving the film up to then. But the movie finished strong with the musical’s biggest songs, Kendrick and Corden’s “No One is Alone” (considered the theme of the show) and Streep’s “Children Will Listen,” which draw you back in during the final scene.
The show is an emotional roller coaster of the best kind. You experience joy and heartbreak right alongside these beloved characters while being entertained to the fullest by Sondheim’s incredible lyrics and enchanting score. Overall, the film is poignant and touching and there is no better way to spend a few hours for a magic and/or musical lover. If you are both, like myself, you will leave the theater feeling emotionally impacted and blown away by the film’s performances. Not bad for a trip to the movies.
Into the Woods: A-