From the minute Into the Woods takes over the screen, it doesn’t try to hide from being a musical on film, making the way it’s structured very unique. Director Rob Marshall, known for adapting Chicago into an Academy Award-winning film in 2002, re-teams with cinematographer Dion Beebe to create a fairy-tale landscape that, ironically, looks entirely organic and natural and also allows for Stephen Sondheim’s timeless lyrics to drive the story from beginning to end.
Their Enchanted Forest is full of dark, twisty bite along with natural light peeking through overgrown branches and tall trees. It’s a collaboration (including Disney, no doubt) that offers the best setting for the classic Broadway musical that first opened in 1987 and won several Tonys.
In the film version, nothing is static; characters move along with the music as though it’s the soundtrack to their lives with every step they take. So, basically, the music is what really sets the tone for the action and drama, not dialogue. I’ll admit it can be jarring at first to take in scene after scene of actors belting out in song, but staying with the pace and letting go of dialogue pays off emotionally right when you want it to.
Like the musical, Into the Woods 2014 assumes that most people already know what happens to characters like Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) or Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) in their respective fairy tales. The musical’s clever twist is also preserved in the film version, so that the same expectations of happily-ever-after are thwarted and the characters go through many relatable trials in order to come out wiser and fully human.
The fact that Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Christine Baranski, and Chris Pine are some of the big-name talent attached to each role only makes the film version seem more complete and separate from the stage musical. Each one of these actors delivers in a way you’d expect based on their other films, but given Marshall’s direction and the production design and cinematography working together furiously, there’s also some surprising vocal range that an audience (well, okay, me, personally) might not have seen before.
Numbers like “Agony,” sung by Chris Pine, and “Last Midnight”, by Meryl Streep, have a lot of commanding drama, wit and comedy attached to them, while Emily Blunt and James Corden singing “It Takes Two” or Anna Kendrick singing “On the Steps of the Palace” are a lot more subtle, but still deliver, especially in well-placed “movie” close-ups of their faces. A fleeting look here, a tiny gesture there really speaks volumes, which is the best of what film can offer against the stage version.
Yes, there’s always YouTube if you want to check out highlights from the complete, mostly ‘90s stage, but Into the Woods 2014 could become a classic in its own right, simply because it knows the power of movie magic.
Into the Woods opens nationwide on Christmas Day.