Film Review: Into the Woods (2014)

“Into the woods to see the King, to sell the cow, to make the potion”

After the Oscar-winning success of Chicago, it is little surprise that Rob Marshall keeps returning to the world of musical theatre for his films and it is now the turn of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods to get the full cinematic treatment. The story pulls together a whole raft of characters from various fairytales and asks the question ‘what happens after happy ever after?’. So we meet familiar characters like Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack on their respective journeys but keep on following them deeper into the woods as they’re forced to deal with the consequences of their actions.

So Cinderella has to deal with the fact she’s married to a man she barely knows, Jack is called out for thieving so many of the Giant’s possession back down the beanstalk and so on, and the characters also crash into each other’s stories too, further muddying the waters. At the heart of the film is the Baker and his wife whose desperation for a child is a key contributing factor to the chaos that emerges and Marshall manages to keep the strands of this multi-threaded story clear and comprehensible – the staging is rarely audaciously exciting but the lack of tricksiness actually works in the film’s favour. 

The changes made by Lapine and Sondheim themselves are interestingly done for those who know the stage show, responding to the change in medium and the need for wider audience appeal. Smoothing out the structure from the two very distinct acts into a free-flowing whole means that a lot of the clever touches that embellish the story, especially later on, have been cut, likewise with the songs – some survive in instrumental form (‘Ever After’ and ‘No More’ two of the saddest cuts here) and others chopped completely. The overall effect is reduce the impact of the crucial tonal shift.

Which is ok if one thinks of this as a film targeted at family audiences, something clear from the casting of child actors as Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), though there’s no hiding from the fact that things do get more complex, no matter how quickly we skip over the death and darkness. It’s instructive to learn that US high schools often perform a truncated version of the stage show that completely omits the second act but a more savvy generation of kids raised on modern Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks films should be more than able to cope with the twist on the familiar fairytales, and one suspects that the Brothers Grimm would also have approved of the more questioning moral tone. 

More problematic is the choice to remove the character of the narrator but still keep elements of the narration which are puzzlingly done by James Corden – “in this village…lived a childless baker” he informs us, with no mention of the fact that he is that very baker. It’s a strange halfway house of a move that doesn’t work. Corden’s Baker doesn’t really cover himself in much glory either, adding to a series of role in which he has delivered very similar performances with little nuance to suggest any depth to his acting – there’s little real sense of marital conflict from him – and his singing voice equally lacks any real sense of character.

He’s actually hindered by the considerable success of Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife, so many of their scenes are together and she blows him off the screen with a performance full of vitality and vulnerability and an astoundingly beautiful vocal – her ‘Moments in the Woods’ is one of the film’s real highlights as she deals with her flirtation with infidelity with wit and warmth and a gorgeous honesty that was rightfully recognised with a thoroughly deserved Golden Globe nomination. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is a little muted by comparison, though she remains a beguiling screen presence throughout.

Meryl Streep delivers another of her customary extraordinarily rounded characterisations as the misunderstood Witch, at her best when letting her mask slip to show the frustrated maternal warmth at her heart, Christine Baranski has a whale of a time as the vicious wicked Stepmother and Tracey Ullman brings Jack’s Mother to bracingly vivid life. Chris Pine also deserves a mention as his vain Cinderella’s Prince is a work of near-genius, capturing the perfect level of hamminess which is never bettered than in ‘Agony’, the chest-baring competition that is his duet with Billy Magnussen’s Rapunzel’s Prince. 

It’s fantastic to see so much British talent shining through the ensemble too. Joanna Riding appears early on as Cinderella’s mother, Lucy Punch is vivaciously vicious as ugly step-sister Lucinda and Annette Crosbie’s grandmother, Frances de la Tour’s Giant’s Wife and Simon Russell Beale’s Baker’s Father all make small but significant impacts in their scenes. Adding in the fact that the film was entirely filmed in the UK, including Shepperton Studios, there’s definitely grounds for claiming this as a great British success – I really hope Emily Blunt is justly awarded at trophy-handing-out time – as much as a Disney one. Let’s just not mention Johnny Depp’s Wolf.

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