Having never seen any stage version of this Stephen Sondheim musical it is much easier to take this big screen adaptation of Into the Woods at face value and while Disney does do Broadway beautifully, the film, for all its hype and fan excitement, does not overwhelm or overly impress. Certainly the movie looks gorgeous, the costumes, the set designs, the actors, with the exclusion of James Corden as the baker are all equally beautiful.
Not to be insultive toward the English actor who was the costar in the little 2009 British film Lesbian Vampire Killers, a title that was changed to just Vampire Killers, all the better to not annoy the LGBT, but while Corden is a competent actor, he is not matinee idol material and if asked, the actor would most likely agree that he is not in the same league as Johnny Depp or Chris Pine. Two actors who are also in this film adapted version of Into the Woods.
Directed by Rob Marshall, who has a couple of musicals under his belt, Annie a `1999 TV movie, the Oscar winning 2002 film, Chicago and of course another Oscar winning non musical, the sumptuous 2005 film Memoirs of a Geisha, to list a few of Marshall’s accomplishments, does a good job in the cut-down film take on Into the Woods a stage play that focusses on several fairytale creations, some of whom have been featured in a number of Disney films and fans of the Broadway production will all agree that the cinematic version is beautifully done, even if great huge portions of the play wound up being cut out of the film.
The loss of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Narrator and the Mysterious Man, along with Cinderella’s mother and father were all stricken from the cast list and the plot. However, if the original musical has never been seen, this will matter little in the overall scheme of things. The film opens with a childless couple wishing for a baby, the baker and his wife, a girl wishing for more than her life contains, Cinderella, a boy who wishes he had a friend, Jack (and the Beanstalk) and a young girl who apparently wishes for a bigger stomach to fit all her stolen bakery goods in, Little Red Riding Hood.
Another character appears, with an introductory line that may be the best in the film, “Oh, it’s the witch next door,” says James Corden’s baker in a line that drips with tongue in cheek content despite its almost throwaway delivery. Meryl Streep is the ugly old crone, who announces to the barren couple that their lack of a child is down to her. She send sthe Baker on a quest to find her several items, in the woods, and she will reverse the curse that she put on the baker’s family and they will have children.
The objects; a cloak as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a cow as white as milk and a slipper as pure as gold are to be collected from the woods and given to the witch, she cannot touch any of the items before hand, and once this is done, there will be a little baker bundle of joy. This is the base of the plot and allows all the characters to interact, with the exception of the ones cut from the film.
The narrator, which had been touted to be such actors as Michael Caine, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Earl Jones, et al, was replaced with Corden doing the dual duties as Baker and narrator. As gloriously beautiful as Disney’s Into the Woods looks on screen, the film, as based on the play, can be seen as almost viciously misogynistic. All the female characters are treated heinously in the film. Death, mutilation, despair, desertion and isolation are just a few of the things that befall the fairer sex in the film. The baker’s wife (Emily Blunt), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother (Annette Crosby), the witch (Meryl Streep) and the giantess (Frances de la Tour) are just some of the women in the woods who are treated abysmally by Lost in the Woods.
The nature of the tale is very dark, so not even the male members of the story get off lightly. Johnny Depp’s Tex Avery style wolf comes to a bad end obviously and the prince, who fell in love with Cinderella loses his “happily ever after” after dallying about with the baker’s wife. Although it has to be said, Chris Pine’s prince does have the other “best” line in the film, “I was raised to be charming, not to be sincere,” he says to Cinderella once she learns of his indiscretion. The music of Into the Woods is another star of the movie; splendid, moving, exciting and overwhelming, it will no doubt earn Disney an award or two for its version of a Broadway favorite.
Despite all these beautifully evocative ingredients, the Disney film is not overly impressive. A number of the film actors who fill this cinematic version of the Broadway hit are not singers. Streep does a good, if not too showy job as the witch, but the rest of the cast do that sort of Rex Harrison, Richard Burton “sing/speak.” The rhythmic delivery of songs that Harrison used for all his numbers in the 1967 film Dr. Dolittle. This type of faux singing works well for some numbers, but not all, and when the witch belts out her tune, it feels misplaced. Into the Woods premieres December 25, 2014. Prepare to be swept away by this film with its dark theme, gorgeous music and captivating performances but do not expect to get “carried away” by it all.
By Michael Smith
Regal Red Rock Theatre