“Be careful what you wish for” warn the ads for “Into the Woods” — an apt summary of the movie’s theme, and also the mindset of many a Stephen Sondheim fan ever since it was announced that the composer’s popular 1987 Broadway musical was being turned into a film. But such fears are swiftly allayed by director Rob Marshall, who, um, marshals Sondheim’s cavalcade of fairy-tale all-stars on to the screen in a faithful, never particularly inspired, but supremely respectable version — one that outclasses Marshall’s prior “Chicago” and “Nine,” to say nothing of this season’s two-ton musical monstrosity, “Annie.” Strong reviews and family appeal should earn Disney much more than a bunch of magic beans at the holiday box office, with a long shelf life to follow.
It certainly took Hollywood long enough to see the forest for the trees where “Into the Woods” was concerned. A film version was first bandied about in the mid-’90s at Sony (with Goldie Hawn, Cher and Steve Martin among the potential cast), then put into development deep-freeze for the next two decades. During that time, “Woods” was revived twice on the New York stage (including director Timothy Sheader’s brilliant open-air production in Central Park in 2012) and could be felt as an influence on the “Shrek” movies and (especially) Disney’s “Enchanted.” But the announcement that Disney was finally making “Woods” still brought with it no shortage of anxieties (some fueled by a misquoted Sondheim interview): namely, that the Mouse House would sand down the less family-friendly elements of the show, including its lascivious pederast wolf, an episode of marital infidelity, and a second-act body count to rival Sondheim’s own “Sweeney Todd.”
For all those reasons and more, the chief virtue of this “Into the Woods” is a feeling of relief. Marshall hasn’t made one of the great movie musicals here, but he hasn’t bungled it, either — far from it. Aficionados who know the show by heart will fully recognize what they see here (and actually be able to see it, after the frantic, seizure-inducing editing of “Chicago” and “Nine”), while new audiences will more than get the gist, a touch condensed and Disneyfied perhaps, but to little overall detriment. If so much as one tween viewer adds Sondheim to his or her iPod playlist alongside the likes of “Let it Go,” all will have been worthwhile.
Taking greater inspiration from “The Uses of Enchantment” author Bruno Bettelheim than from Uncle Walt, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who also earns a screenplay credit here) pluck a dozen or so characters from the iconic fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, add in a few of their own invention, and set them on a tragicomic collision course in which “happily ever after” comes with a litany of fine-print conditions.
The lineup includes a humble baker (the very appealing James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), whose bake shop is frequented by a bratty, shoplifting Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and who live next door to a haggard old witch (Meryl Streep) with many axes to grind. Long ago, the witch abducted the baker’s infant sister, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and cursed the baker himself with sterile genes — punishment for the sins of his estranged father (who stole magic beans from the witch’s garden, once upon a time). But the curse can be reversed, the witch announces, provided the baker and his wife procure the necessary ingredients in the span of 72 hours: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.
It is that quest which leads the childless couple into said woods, and into contact with all manner of fellow travelers running to or away from something: the farm boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), reluctantly off to market to sell his beloved but milk-dry cow; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), giving chase to a confounded Prince Charming (Chris Pine); and Little Red herself, weighing mother’s advice about strangers against the dandyish charms of a certain Mr. Wolf (a lip-smacking Johnny Depp, in slanted fedora and a kind of hirsute smoking jacket). For Sondheim and Lapine, these woods are as much a psychological space as a physical one — an existential crucible where innocence is lost, wisdom gained and the difficulty felt of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, be they golden or giant-sized. Freed from the literal belly of the beast, Red Riding Hood sings that her lupine adventure made her feel scared, yes, but also excited, before concluding, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?/And a little bit not.” Meanwhile, after her own illicit wooded liaison, the baker’s wife wonders, “Is it always ‘or?’/Is it never ‘and?’” — one of those deceptively simple Sondheim lyrics that feels like a definitive expression of life’s unending compromise.
Marshall, who’s never seemed to know quite what to do with a movie camera and an editing machine, is helped considerably here by the fact that “Woods” (unlike his previous musical films) has no major dances to flash-cut into incoherence. And where both “Chicago” and “Nine” labored to present their musical numbers as fantasy sequences, lest multiplex-goers be alarmed by the sight of actors suddenly bursting into song, “Woods” harbors no such concerns, embracing its theatricality down to the smallest details of costume and set design. (“The trees are just wood,” Sondheim’s characters sing, but the ones in Marshall’s film, care of production designer Dennis Gassner, look closer to fiberglass.) We’re a long — and probably wise — way here from the bigger-budget version of the film originally proposed, complete with elaborate creature effects from the Jim Henson workshop. The movie doesn’t need the extra razzle-dazzle because the real magic is there in Sondheim’s music, which Marshall allows to come through mostly unimpeded (save for a few deleted reprises) in Jonathan Tunick’s marvelous original orchestrations, conducted by longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani.
Both men also worked on Tim Burton’s 2007 film version of “Sweeney Todd” (starring Depp as the eponymous demon barber), a stylistically bolder and more accomplished film than “Into the Woods.” If comparisons must be made, however, then “Woods” is the better sung of the two, by a generally superb cast who catch the tricky tonal shifts from cheeky satire to pathos and back again. Decked out with a long gray mane and a face of Grand Canyon crags, Streep brings a most amusing petulance to the witch (whom Bernadette Peters played as more of a cloying Jewish mother in the original Broadway production). Pine makes for a hilariously preening, clueless Prince, as does Billy Magnussen as his equally charming and insincere princely brother (who longs for fair Rapunzel). Their witty duet, “Agony,” performed in the midst of a babbling brook, is one of the film’s most dynamic numbers. But as onstage, the richest part here is that of the baker’s wife, a loyal helpmeet who can’t help but wonder if she’s cut out for grander things, and who pays dearly for that curiosity. And Blunt (once again under Streep’s thumb, as in “The Devil Wears Prada”) has just the right nurturing yet wistful air to make the character heartbreaking in spite of (or rather, because of) her all-too-human flaws.
For the screen, Lapine has somewhat condensed the show’s second half, diluting the sense that the characters, having achieved their ostensible goals by intermission, still long for something more. Mostly, though, the second-act doozies are still here: the deaths, the betrayals and the buck-passing standoff with a very angry female giant (Frances de la Tour). All of that should send wise children and their parents out into the night mulling the complex nature of love and loss, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and the things both good and ill we pass on from one generation to the next. “Anything can happen in the woods,” goes one Sondheim lyric, and the same might be said of Hollywood musicals. Sometimes, by happy luck, they manage to get one right.