Steven Sondheim’s celebrated musical premiered on Broadway in 1986 and has been popular ever since. In it, Sondheim retells the tales of several fairy tale characters that we know well, but they don’t necessarily have the traditional happy endings we’ve all become accustomed to. And really, who better than Rob Marshall (Chicago, Annie (1999), Nine) to direct and adapt the musical to the big screen. He directs the adaptation in a visceral way and has a creative eye that brings us a new version but still manages to maintain respect to the original material. With a great cast, wonderful production value, and high energy, Into the Woods is definitely some of the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year.

In a land far away, surrounded by woods, there lived a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who have both desperately longed to have a child, but to no avail. In a house surrounded by an evil stepmother and stepsisters, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wishes to go to the king’s festival (known to all of us as a ball). In another part of the kingdom, a young boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman) need money for food, but Jack doesn’t want to sell his beloved cow for gold coins. And Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to her granny’s house, but mustn’t stray from the path to get there.

The Witch (Meryl Streep) from next door knows the baker and his wife wish to have a child and tells them a little secret: The reason they can’t have a baby is because she cursed their house when the baker’s father stole the vegetables from her garden (and the magic beans that kept her young). So, in order to lift the curse, the couple must go into the woods to retrieve items the witch requires so they can finally make their wish come true. All the fairy tale characters cross paths in one way or another and end up being led off their original paths and are instead led down a path none had anticipated when they’d made their wishes.

Rob Marshall has a knack for taking something from the stage and transforming it into a new experience for those who have been fans of Into the Woods and, at the same time, has the ability to make new fans of the musical as well. The creative liberties that he takes add to the musical rather than take away from it. Even the couple of songs that are omitted in the second half of the film aren’t necessarily felt because Marshall does such a good job setting up what the characters are feeling.

The entire art production of the film is superb. The costumes, the sets, and the natural setting, paired with good use of some CGI, is well-balanced. The ensemble cast works very well together and some of the most memorable parts of the film come when they cross paths in the woods during several occasions, which is also very much remiss of the stage production and plays out pretty well onscreen, to the advantage of the film because this could have gone very wrong.

Ironically, Meryl Streep swore she’d never play a witch, but of course threw that out the window as soon as she found out it was for a musical by Sondheim, and she owns every minute of her screen time. Her presence is both sad and fun all at the same time, and her entrances and exits in every scene are fantastic. And as much as the rest of the cast may have probably been intimidated by Streep’s presence, they hold their own and at least aren’t overshadowed by her.

Emily Blunt and James Corden are essentially the central characters of the film and everything revolves around their story. The two are good together, have a cute chemistry, and are able to hold their own in a sea of characters that are running amok in the woods. Anna Kendrick may be an odd choice for some as Cinderella simply because she is different than what the stereotype has implied in the past but her powerful voice, indecisiveness, and kindliness immediately endears her to you.

Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, the youngest of the cast, do a good job in keeping up with all the of the more experienced actors. Huttlestone, who was in Les Miserables two years ago, has improved in enunciating during his songs so that everyone can understand what he’s singing. And between all the main characters running around, we can’t forget the

two-dimensional princes, played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, whose only major problems are that they’re smitten with women whom they can’t immediately have and provide the large amount of comedic relief in the film.

The princes, along with the evil stepmother (Christine Baranksi), are the only ones in the fairy tale shakeup who remain static as characters and don’t go beyond the original two-dimensional way they’ve always been written. This is primarily because they’re used as a cause for change in the people around them but don’t do any of the changing themselves. In this case, it still works here, mostly because of the comedy, and as a warning, Magnussen’s character is probably the most cheesy of all of them.

The film also touches on several great and important themes: Taking responsibility for one’s actions, realizing there are consequences for your actions, to be careful what you wish for, that everything you wish for and want isn’t necessarily what you thought it would turn out to be, and probably most central to the story is the theme of parenthood and the teaching of children. After all, “you must be careful what you say, children will listen”.

Whether Sondheim means to address gender roles in an almost mocking fashion (like he does with the entire fairy tale aspect) intentionally, I’m not sure, but he does regardless. There is a lot in there about mothers and fathers, the relationship between parents and children, women being on their own in life, how the baker’s role is slightly challenged when his wife joins him in the woods to help him achieve their goal, and how ironic it is when only the female dies right after she commits adultery, but her male counterpart does not.

All of these things are thrown in there and really make you think about the way women are treated in comparison to men, how fairy tale characters and their happy endings are portrayed in pop culture and how they shape and inform generations but really shouldn’t because Sondheim is saying, look, there are consequences and there are lessons and it’s not just fairy dust, princes, and castles. He’s asking to really look at these characters.

Sondheim tells the tale through well-worded lyrics and Marshall plays off of these lyrics fantastically. He enhances the songs in well-choreographed scenes, most notable of them being “Agony” by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, where they spend the entire song preening and prancing competitively in what is also the funniest song and scene in the film. Also a favorite is “It Takes Two” with Blunt and Corden, who show off their playfulness during the song, and “On the Steps of the Palace” by Anna Kendrick, who runs through her indecisiveness in terms of the prince in a clearly indecisive way that anyone can probably relate to.

One of the stranger aspects of the film is the wolf, played by Johnny Depp, who is creepy in a way kids won’t get but adults very much will. He’s in the film all of five minutes, but the interaction between he and Red Riding Hood is very much filled with sexual innuendo, harking back to the original tale and can be a bit off putting, though children won’t read too much into it. Also, the scene where Red Riding Hood sings after being rescued by the baker doesn’t really seem to fit into the film at all. Not the song itself, but the scene of being eaten by the wolf and then the scene inside the wolf’s stomach is out of place and could have been omitted and left with just Lilla Crawford singing and perhaps doing something that didn’t involve the wolf at all.

All in all, long-time fans and general audiences will be entertained by Into the Woods. Die-hard fans also shouldn’t fear of any massive changes to the plot either, and Disney takes care not to shake off the dark direction the story takes. And even though the film softens some of the outcomes in the second half, adults will be able to grasp the underlying subtleties. Hopefully, you can take a deeper look at a musical that’s chock full of themes, as well as a fun shake up of all the fairy tale happy endings we’ve all come to know, which is also ironic since this is produced by Disney.

The original Grimm brothers tales all make their appearances and the stories are much darker than what we’re used to, especially once we get past the first half of the film and move into the aftermath of all the characters’ wishing. And save for a couple of instances where the film feels like it loses its balance (and they all have to do with the wolf), the musical carries itself gracefully and with enthusiasm. A great day for musicals.

Release Date: December 25, 2014 | Director: Rob Marshall | Screenwriter: James Lapine | Musical by: Steven Sondheim and James Lapine | Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen, Tracey Ullman, Mackenzie Mauzy, Lilla Crawford, Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Daniel Huttlestone | Genre: Musical | MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
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About Author

Mae is a Washington, DC-based film critic, entertainment journalist and Weekend Editor at Heroic Hollywood. A member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), she's a geek who loves discussing movies and TV. She is also a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. If she's not at the movies, she's catching up on her superhero TV-watching, usually with a glass of wine in hand.

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