The largely very theatrical concepts of Stephen Sondheim shows must be an even bigger challenge however, particularly as the writer/composer is famously protective of his work and reluctant to surrender it to the power lords of Hollywood to maul around. Excluding “West Side Story” (Sondheim lyrics, Bernstein music) and films to which he has contributed musically, such as the songs featured in “Dick Tracy”, only a handful of his impressive solo theatrical output has been filmed. In the early sixties “Gypsy” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” did well but “A Little Night Music” (1977) sunk without trace. The last Sondheim movie was Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” seven years ago, which made some cuts and expansions but caught the Victorian bleakness, pathos and dark humour of the original with some memorably dramatic musical moments.
“Into the Woods” must have been even more of a challenge. Director Rob Marshall, who reworked the highly theatrical Kander and Ebb/Bob Fosse musical “Chicago” into a cinematic form, here seems a little more wary of treading on the toes of the original. The story is a retelling and indeed witty subversion of well loved fairy tales and their characters, who all meet and interact in the enchanted woods of the title. Red Riding Hood, Jack of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella and Rapunzel are all brought together by Sondheim’s new characters, The Baker (Corden) and his Wife (Blunt).
The couple are victims of the curse of childlessness, laid on them by the Witch (Streep), who herself was turned from a beauty into a hag for losing the magic beans, which will later create Jack’s ladder into the kingdom of the giants. In order to lift the two curses, The Baker and his wife are sent by her on an odyssey into the woods to find four items: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a slipper as pure as gold. In the course of their journey they encounter the other characters, who too are pursuing their dreams.
Sondheim wittily reworks the original fairy tales – Cinderella for example can’t make up her mind whether she wants her handsome prince or not and what happens to Rapunzel’s long golden hair, the only route to the tower in which she is imprisoned, is certainly not in the original tale. This story benefits from not one but two handsome princes – Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s suitor and Chris Pine as Cinderella’s, who share a wickedly funny, self absorbed and competitive duet, which is effectively a musical pissing contest. But at the end of what on stage is Act 1, when we seem all set for an early “happy ever after” resolution, things take a turn into darkness, as the Giant at the top of the beanstalk seeks revenge and retribution. And though the final outcome with the memorable “Children will listen” theme is not without hope, it is a poignant and grown up ending rather than a traditional fairy tale one.
Sondheim’s music is not always easy on first hearing, though its magic takes hold in Marshall’s fairy tale woodland set where most of the action takes place. Some of the darkness has been removed by Disney – this is a PG after all – but sorry, Johnny Depp in a cameo role as The Wolf can’t help but be sexy even though some of his teeth have been metaphorically drawn. But the awful fate of Cinderella’s sisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) imposed on them by their mother (Christine Baranski) to get them to fit into the now gold rather than glass slipper is still intact. Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman are good as Jack and his mother, though Cinderella (Broadway star Anna Kendrick) is a little irritating and Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) a bit of a brat. Corden keeps his sometimes anarchic sense of humour in check, playing a role that is both touching and funny, while Blunt is warm, tender and totally enchanting as his wistful wife, who is tempted to stray from the straight and narrow path by one of the princes. And Streep is a wonderfully wicked and vengeful Witch, who it turns out is not totally evil after all. She is chasing her dream too. She makes a great entrance into the story and has an impressive transformation scene back to youth and beauty.
Having seen the stage show twice I have some reservations about how well the inherent theatricality of the piece works in the cinema. But there are so many good things in the film, it would be a shame to miss it.
Now who’s up for making a film of “Assassins” or “Sunday in the Park with George”? They would indeed be a challenge and a half.
Review by Carol Allen