When I first heard about the release of a movie version of Into the Woods, based on the Stephen Sondheim stage musical I had adored since I was a teenager, I was excited and skeptical. The recent film adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd had its moments, definitely presenting both a point of view and a fun, macabre story aimed at a younger audience, but it sacrificed a lot with the sub-par vocals of the beautiful score. Into the Woods is part of that same recent movie musical boom. It features a mostly “movie star” cast that’s not universally known for their singing ability, and it’s directed by Rob Marshall, who has had both a major movie musical success in Chicago and a disappointment in Nine. Could it live up to the hype?
I’m happy to report that it does. Into the Woods is a fantastic screen adaptation of its source material. It represents the show well, and it adds impressive visuals and a more robust orchestral score. For those unfamiliar with Into the Woods, be warned that the trailers present it as a dark fairy tale/fantasy movie, maybe with a touch of Lord of the Rings. While it has elements of that, don’t go in expecting that – there are obviously fantasy elements, but it’s a musical through-and-through, almost entirely sung-through (very little dialogue outside of the singing).
While Meryl Streep, who plays the Witch, has been highlighted in ads as the film’s star, it is more of an ensemble piece, and a strong one at that. Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick are definitely the vocal highlights. Streep brings passion, gravitas, and a strong belt voice to her pieces, along with a fun camp performance. Kendrick excels as the beleaguered Cinderella. Most of the rest of the cast sing well enough, which is quite a challenge given the difficult music. James Corden and Emily Blunt, as the Baker and Baker’s Wife, are very relatable, and Chris Pine is a scene-stealer as Cinderella’s Prince.
While a few cast members were just adequate in their parts, there were no weak links in the cast. Daniel Huttlestone as Jack (known for his role as Gavroche in a previous movie musical, Les Miserables) was appealing, but his music didn’t quite soar the way it does with more of a mature-voiced tenor, as the role is usually cast on stage. Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood wasn’t a standout, despite some good moments. Johnny Depp as the Wolf, although fine, wasn’t really a necessary piece of stunt casting for such a small part.
Overall, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never encountered Into the Woods on stage, be prepared for incredibly witty wordplay and a compelling story that explores the light and dark side of fairy tales. If you’re a fan of the show, you might boggle at the occasional cut song, story moment or lyrical change, but nothing integral is missing and you’ll leave the theatre aglow.
Into the Woods opens nationwide on Christmas Day.