‘Into the Woods’ Lumbers Only a Little

'The tale told is a mash-up of characters from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm...'

Disney’s adaptation—both anticipated and dreaded—of the 1987 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical “Into the Woods” has been playing since Christmas Day, but I only just got around to it this week. Ah, the holidays, the holidays.

Anyway, I’ve just caught it at the Regal Stadium 14 in full-on Dolby Digital, and wasn’t much disappointed in it at all. Nor was a nicely packed matinee house, which had drawn all ages of viewers…this, despite the shutout of its three nominations at last Sunday evening’s Golden Globes (an overblown awards ceremony that is a total joke, but that’s another story, and another column).

The tale told is a mash-up of characters from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, among them Cinderella and Prince Charming, Jack the Giant Killer and his magic beans, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Rapunzel and Charming’s princely bro, plus a couple of handy newcomers, a village baker and his wife, not to mention the centerpiece Witch, who propels the plot by tasking the last two into a 72-hour quest to gather objects which will lift their curse of childlessness while granting her own vain wish as well.

Whew. That’s a lotta plot. But director Rob Marshall, who knows a thing or three about bringing stage musicals to the screen (like 2002’s Best Picture winner “Chicago”) has trimmed the lengthy Broadway show to 125 minutes, still hitting all the high notes, quite literally, while bringing a couple of new highlights to the big screen.

Yes, Marshall deleted at least a half-dozen songs (“I Guess This Is Goodbye,” “Our Little World,” “No More”), plus some  significant reprises (the ironic retread of “Agony” is sorely missed), although the Wolf’s leeringly pedophilic “Hello, Little Girl” is (gratefully) less disturbing. There are more compensations. Sondheim-ites will delight in noticing, for instance, that an instrumental waltz from his “A Little Night Music” plays as Cinderella arrives at the palace. Other missing vocal pieces turn up on the soundtrack, like the song “You Must Meet My Wife,” the only tune played by the giant’s magic harp.  

The movie has a scattering of laughs, but it isn’t light fare. Truth is, not everybody makes it to the end. There are several major deaths, some altered from the show, some shoved off-screen, but there’s still a high body count for a PG flick. It’s like ”Lifeboat: The Musical.”

The ensemble mostly pulls it off. Primarily: Emily Blunt (the real action hero in “Edge of Tomorrow”) as the baker’s wife, Anna Kendrick’s “Pitch Perfect” Cinderella, brittle Christine Baranski (“The Good Wife”) as the Wicked Stepmother, Chris Pine (Kirk in the “Star Trek” reboot) as Charming, even oddball Johnny Depp’s quick five-minute run as a Wolf out of Tex Avery.

And then there is Meryl Streep, as the Witch, and man, does she hold this thing together. First a cursed crone and later a rejuvenated beauty, she has not only the acting spotlight throughout, but also the musical one. Her show-stopping “The Last Midnight” late in the film instantly shows you why she was cast over other contenders like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Idina Menzel, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kate Winslet, and Nicole Kidman, all of whom were considered. You may adore New York’s progenitor Witch, Bernadette Peters, and well you should. But Queen Meryl rules all here.

Not a total triumph of a movie musical, though. There’s not a single dance number save for the royal ballroomers, and what’s a musical without a dance number? Further, Red and Jack are real children here, youthened from the play’s young adults. The young Lilla Crawford (a recent “Annie”) and Daniel Huttlestone (“Les Mis”) deliver as expected, I guess, but it seems to me that the only thing worse than brassy Broadway belters is brassy kid Broadway belters. Frankly, I couldn’t stand the screeching brats.

Still, most everyone in the movie, with its “modest” budget of “only” $50 million, makes the couple of hours an enchanting one.

This isn’t the first attempt to bring “Into the Woods” to the screen. Twenty years ago, director Penny Marshall tried to mount it with Robin Williams, Goldie Hawn, and Cher. A few years later, Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King,”) envisioned Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Susan Sarandon.

I think it’s good those didn’t happen. People have been worried about Disney’s take on the subject matter. Even late last fall, there were both blogged and journalist-reported concerns about lightening the dark material and bowdlerizing the adult situations—in other words, the dread of seeing and hearing Sondheim Disneyfied.

No worries, though, as it turns out. What better studio to produce a fairy tale for grown-ups than the House of Mouse itself.

Odd, though, that the studio will debut its new live-action “Cinderella on” screen in March…

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