The film’s cast succeeds in wrapping their voices around his words, catching the wry humor without losing the subtext. Meryl Streep gives a embellished, darkly funny turn as the evil witch yet does so without chewing the scenery and teetering into overplaying the villainy. Meanwhile, Emily Blunt and James Corden have an easygoing, comical rapport as the married couple whose personal travails kick off the adventure. Corden, about to become more of a staple in North America due to his takeover of Craig Ferguson’s late night spot, gives the role a gentle sprinkling of normalcy, which creates comic relief as the fantastical happenings continue to bewilder him.
Daniel Huttlestone, who brought scene-stealing brio to Gavroche in Les Misérables two holiday seasons ago, offers the same awe and energy as Jack. The best of the ensemble, though, is Chris Pine, oozing arrogant charisma as the excitable Prince. If there was a weak link in this all-star cast, it would be Johnny Depp, whose take as the Wolf is not menacing enough. He also only appears for around five minutes of screen time, so the quirky interpretation does not linger for too long.
On the screen, Into the Woods stumbles in a few locations, albeit not for long. A sly narrator present in the stage version offers a bit of voice-over, but much of it is unnecessary and the part could have been shelved entirely. Meanwhile, the film wraps up its darker second act too quickly, without giving some of the characters proper send-offs – especially with Blunt’s baker’s wife. However, it could have been worse: Sondheim purists have worried that lending this dark, tuneful revisionist collection of fairy tales to Disney, a company known for their much happier, tuneful revisionist collection of fairy tales, would dilute the menacing themes. For the most part though, Marshall and Lapine keep the innuendo high, so that adults will get the darker subtext of moments that will fly above their kids’ heads.
The only time the film veers for bolder-than-expected imagery is during a predatory encounter between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. The scene is handled well, and we see a non-graphic dreamscape of the young girl falling down through the creature’s stomach. Kids will likely view it literally, while the sexually charged subtext of the encounter will resonate more with adults. (In the next scene, Red Riding Hood offers her red cape to the baker, a moment where the sexual connotations will be clearer to an older audience.)
Miraculously, most of Marshall’s film works. It is spectacular but does not feel like an empty spectacle, with a potent ensemble taking the foreground and outstanding production design (from Skyfall’s Dennis Gassner) rendering the forest thrillingly alive. Into the Woods also manages to balance the garish and the grim. Adorers of Sondheim’s play could lament a couple of creative changes, but it is hard to imagine audiences not wanting a sojourn with a cast this talented and direction this confident. Sometimes, as Marshall knows, it works wonders to play out to the audience.
Rob Marshall rekindles the fire of the movie musical with the exceptionally performed, exquisitely designed Into the Woods.