Director Rob Marshall has masterfully brought three Broadway musicals to the big screen, although he has done so by breaking a cardinal rule of adapting a stage production. In the transition to the big screen, many directors choose to space their songs and scenes in a different way from the stage blocking, so that the story’s theatrical roots evaporate. For instance, instead of showing the scenes in a wide shot, akin to how an audience member would view a sweeping musical, they use one of the cinema’s most distinctive features, the close-up. Instead of allowing the characters to remain static as they sing their soliloquies, the director often lets the character move around and interact with the world around them. These tricks are meant to sever any stage-bound influences.
Nevertheless, the success of Marshall’s blustery, big-screen versions of beloved plays – the Oscar-winning Chicago, the under-rated Nine and now, Into the Woods – depends on him keeping with some of the conventions of the stage. In Chicago, many of the actors perform their songs, including “Cell Block Tango” and “Mr. Cellophane,” on a stage. In Nine, many of the tunes come accompanied with glitzy neon lighting for a soundstage setting.
Given the proximity of those films to themes of celebrity and the blending of fantasy and reality, binding these songs to a stage or platform and letting the actors play out to the audience worked to illustrious effect. That mix of the real and the fantastical is inherent to Stephen Sondheim’s Tony-winner Into the Woods, as well. Marshall knows when to let the spectacular numbers break free and when to ground the drama, creating a nice balance of enchantment and darkness.
This swift moving, sensationally acted adaptation has such an appealing cast of crowd-pleasers – among them, the spritely Anna Kendrick and a ravishing Meryl Streep – giving their all, that Marshall has the actors perform out to the audience, again. The effect is dizzying enjoyment and entertainment. Even those who normally scoff at movie musicals will find it hard to resist a swooning Chris Pine and As The World Turns’ Billy Magnussen mugging to the camera as they explain their romantic woe in the song “Agony.”
Into the Woods is an amalgamation of various fairy tales, all set in the same story universe. The main plot involves a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), struggling to keep their shop open as well as put a figurative bun in the oven. His family tree is barren, due to a curse from a haggard witch (Meryl Streep). She gives the baker and his wife an ultimatum to collect four items – a white cow, a red cape, a yellow strand of hair and a gold slipper – and give them to her in three midnights time. With that, she can reverse the curse, giving the baker the power to procreate and the witch the glowing youth she lost many years before.
If you’ve been paying attention, you will note that those items are all connected to popular stories. The white cow belongs to Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of Beanstalk fame. The red cape belongs to a young girl (newcomer Lilla Crawford) who has a basket of goodies to deliver to her sickly grandmother. The yellow strand of hair is Rapunzel’s (MacKenzie Mauzy), locked away in a castle at the edge of the kingdom, and the gold slipper belongs to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is excited to attend the festival ball but unsure of whether she wants to spend the night with her prince (Chris Pine).
Marshall and scribe James Lapine (who directed the musical on Broadway) balance all of these fantasy tales, showing each through a comedic and tragic lens. Into the Woods relies often on intercutting, especially in its opening 15 minutes, which zips between the various corners of the kingdoms to set up the journeys that will take a half-dozen characters into those titular woods. Cinematographer Dion Beebe (who won an Oscar for Memoirs of a Geisha) has the camera dance around the performers for various long takes here, so as not to further confuse audiences during the introductions. Furthermore, the languid shots help to orient the viewer with the haphazard, unconventional structure of Sondheim’s lyrics.