Have you ever heard the saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it”? It’s a fitting maxim for the new Disneyfied version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.” Of course, it is one of the themes of the show, but on another level, for the people who have long hoped to see a screen adaptation of the legendary musical, it may not be a situation of wish fulfillment.
Fans of the stage show will notice a few liberties have been taken with the show’s book. The changes are slight—for instance, the prince does not sleep with the Baker’s Wife, although they do have an encounter—but purists may feel like their beanstalk has been shaken a bit too much.
Casual fans of big screen musical theatre, however, will find a handsomely mounted reworking of the popular show, filled with the stuff of fairy tales: beautiful princesses, handsome but dimwitted princes, witches and even a giant or two.
The story is broken into two halves, a sunnier and irreverent “Once Upon a Time” first half that introduces the Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), a couple unable to have children because of a Witch’s (Meryl Streep) curse. The old crone agrees to undo the spell if the pair supply her with four items, a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood; hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold.
Their search takes them into the woods and in collision (and later in collusion) with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), later of Beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) after the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp) has swallowed her whole, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick).
The second half, the darker side of the fairy tale world, begins where the happily ever after part usually sits. When a female giant comes to the woods looking for Jack, the boy who killed her husband, the story takes a turn, teaching a lesson about wish fulfillment and responsibility for our actions.
“Into the Woods” has more to do with the original Grimm Brother Fairy Tales—the ones where evil stepmothers sawed the toes off their daughters to fit into golden slippers—than anything Disney has ever attempted before. The stereotypes are all present and accounted for, but under the prince’s brocade jackets or the Witch’s wild mauve wig, are complex characters that veer from comedic to serious to poignant, often in the same scene.
The cast is comprised of actors who can sing, warbling to Sondheim’s rich score. Standouts include “Agony,” an amusing duet between the two princes (Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine) and the Witch’s swansong “Last Midnight.”
On the downside, it feels a bit overlong and the Big Bad Wolf scene could have been renamed the Huge Unctuous Wolf, given Depp’s oily interpretation of the character.
“Into the Woods” survives the script meddling through strong staging, good performances and sheer wish fulfillment to make end up at it’s own kind of happily ever after.