Think of your favorite fairy tale characters. Now, imagine all of them interacting with each other, through song, in the same universe. No, this isn’t heaven, it’s Into The Woods, based off of the 1987 Broadway musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, Into The Woods is as much for adults as it is for kids. It’s so much fun, bringing fantastic songs and nostalgic feelings of princesses, princes, and beanstalks that you remember from your childhood (or, in my case, from the Disney movie you watched last night).
The first half of the film plays out like most fairy tales, with heroes, villains, princes, princesses, evil stepmothers and a difficult mission. The heroes in this story are the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). The couple cannot have a child due to a curse on their house from the Witch (Meryl Streep). In order to break the curse and have a child, the couple must go on a quest into the woods to retrieve four magical items: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. These items help introduce our heroes to other famous fairy tale characters, such as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (Chris Pine); Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and her Prince (Billy Magnussen); Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the Wolf (Johnny Depp); Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman); and many more!
However, the predictable storyline doesn’t last for long. Even though the film is made by Disney, rated PG, and is advertised as a fun musical, a very dark turn of events in the second act gives more punch than you may be expecting. In fact, when Into The Woods is performed in school productions, the second half is usually cut out. Fairy tale whimsy soon gives way to death and destruction at the hands of a giant. Typical fairy tale tropes are made fun of and predictable happy endings are thrown out the window.
Along with having a phenomenal soundtrack, which I have listened to on repeat for the past two weeks, Into The Woods is very funny and self-realizing, constantly making observations and jokes about the fairy tale genre. For example, in this version of the story, Cinderella gets the happy ending with the Prince, but now she isn’t so sure that is the life she wants. Cinderella’s happy ending may not be ending up in a giant palace with a handsome (yet philandering Prince). Maybe she wants more out of her life. While I know that Disney did not originate the story of Into The Woods, I appreciate that the studio is embracing this idea that marrying a handsome prince and living in a gorgeous castle should not always be the ideal ending for a heroine. Their characters should have more depth than that. First Anna and Elsa in Frozen, now Cinderella in Into The Woods, Disney princesses are starting to get some more bite and realism and I love it!
The acting ensemble in Into The Woods is one of the best of the year. All of the actors and actresses we know and love get to stretch their abilities and show off their pipes; not to mention it looks like they are having a really fun time. Of course we know Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep and James Corden can sing but who knew Emily Blunt and Chris Pine had those voices in them? Anna Kendrick has the best singing voice around. I absolutely adore it and could listen to her sing all day, every day. “No One Is Alone” is one of my favorite songs from any musical and Kendrick’s rendition of the song, along with Corden, was a highlight of the film.
Into The Woods also gave Meryl Streep a chance to show off more of her vocal range than Mama Mia’s songs would allow, especially in “Stay With Me”. Also, who knew Meryl was such a rapper?! Someone sign her to Def Jam ASAP. Chris Pine also gives a fantastic performance as Prince Charming (literally). Pine always plays his characters with a sexy arrogance, and his character in this film is no exception. I can understand why Cinderella’s step-sisters wanted to cut off their toes in order to fit into the glass slipper. Pine’s hilarious, purposely over-the-top performance of “Agony”, along with Magnussen, shows that Into The Woods never takes itself too seriously and I love that quality in any film.
Go to the woods (or theaters) to see Into The Woods the second it opens. The acting is phenomenal, the songs are catchy, and the storyline is both original (if you are unfamiliar with the stage show) and nostalgic.
My Review: A-