"Be careful what you wish for." It's not only the tag-line and main theme of Disney's Into The Woods, but also serves as a warning to fans of the much-beloved Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical on which its based. This is not the sexually fraught, wickedly violent, and dark re-imagining of classic stories that Sondheim envisioned. There's lots of fun to be had in this jaunty translation. But everything from its wolf to its final act has been tamed.
Meryl Streep leads a sprawling and star-studded ensemble as The Witch, whose curse plays at the center of this adventure. Revealing to a humble Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) they are spellbound to be barren, the Witch sends them on a quest to lift the curse. This throws the pair in the way of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), her Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), The Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone). As their stories collide, each character's wish comes at a terrible cost. For fans of the Sondheim staging, the cost of a big-budget movie musical adaptation is much of the original narrative's mature content.
As we've long suspected, the casting of kids in the roles of Red and Jack has meant the willful stripping away of the sexual implications of their songs. This makes The Wolf's song "Hello Little Girl"--with its lyrics of "look at that flesh, pink and plump"--feel as out of place as Depp's bizarre Tex Avery cartoon-styled Wolf, with zoot suit and zig zag whiskers. Without getting into spoilers for those unfamiliar, I'll say a certain sexual indiscretion is played down. The body count in this version is arguably lower, and no death is captured onscreen. All the better to bring the kids to, my dear!
Loyalists to the original will bemoan these changes. But more frustrating is that without a foreknowledge of the plot, you might well miss that some key character deaths have even happened, so subtly is director Rob Marshall sliding them by. Still, there's lots of expositional dialogue in the final act to catch you up. So, you won't be lost by Into The Woods for too long.
Outside of these castrations, Marshall's Into The Woods does offer the kind of spectacle you'd expect from the helmer who brought us Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha. The costumes and sets are sometimes opulent, sometimes dank, but always visually intriguing. There are exciting CG effects from a sky-high beanstalk to blustering winds, a vanishing witch, magical transformations, and giants. But the best bit of spectacle is simply Meryl. You can drape her is a stringy grey wig, cake her in claws, and ask her to rap. And still, Meryl Streep will be glorious. She brings an eager whimsy and glinting menace to The Witch, and her relishing of the Witch's power and panache is contagious. Once again, Streep is, on her own, worthy of the price of admission.
The ensemble as a whole dazzles together, with a biting comedic timing and enthusiasm. James Corden and Emily Blunt shoulder the storytelling and central plot while being playful, witty and occasionally heartbreaking. Anna Kendrick and Mackenzie Mauzy give a tender depth to their prince-loving heroines. Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford are remarkable, gracefully nailing roles generally given to adults on Broadway. He is sweet but believably dopey as Jack, she adorable yet mischievous as Red. Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, Tammy Blanchard and Tracey Ullman dig into some slapstick and campy nastiness as the vicious stepfamily of Cinderella, and nagging mother of Jack. Johnny Depp…well, he's there too. Even though his Wolf feels like it crept in from a different production entirely, he at least manages to not derail the film with his scene-chewing. Thankfully his screen time is brief. But for me, the best part of Into the Woods was--to my surprise--Chris Pine.
Playing the womanizing Prince, Pine seemed smartly cast, thanks to his rebirth of Star Trek ladies man, Captain Kirk. And yet who could have predicted that of all the song numbers Into The Woods boasts, his number with fellow prince (solid scene-partner Billy Magnussen) "Agony" would be the best. Pine not only looks the part--even with a beard--of the infuriatingly dashing dreamboat, but also sells the silliness of the song and self-seriousness of his hero, making his Prince worthy of crushes and mockery.
"Agony" is a song where each prince laments the obstacles that keep him from his princess, a hilarious number that establishes each's self-involved mindset while engaging in outrageous one-upmanship. Marshall stages this number in a stream that runs to some exquisite waterfalls, allowing his princes to wallow in a showy metaphor for their pain. It also proves the perfect venue for dramatic splashing, hair-flipping, and competitive shirt tearing, all of which Pine proves a stellar showman for. It's macho and absurd perfection. Notably, this number earned the biggest reaction from the audience, along with a hearty round of applause.
All in all, Into The Woods is fine family fun, as you'd expect from Disney. It dishes out some spectacular song numbers, heart-lifting performances, and even some belly laughs. But it's difficult to ignore the seams where sex and violence were hacked away to make this mature on fairy tales more suitable for children. This censoring doesn't make Into The Woods a bad movie, just a less interesting one.