Disney has been giving well-known fairytales a tweak recently in such movies as Tangled (Rapunzel), Frozen (the Snow Queen) and Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty) but Stephen Sondheim got there first – and took the tweaking further – with his 1987 musical Into the Woods.
Sondheim and co-author James Lapine ventured into darker places than Disney usually goes, but it is the Mouse House – aided by Chicago director Rob Marshall – that has turned the show into a movie. And, notwithstanding glossy production values and a very starry cast, only a little of the darkness is missing.
Interweaving a handful of cherished Brothers Grimm fairytales with a new story about a childless baker and his wife, Into the Woods is a grown-up response to the ‘happy-ever-after’ stories of childhood, offering instead the wry truth of the old adage: be careful what you wish for.
Winningly played by James Corden and Emily Blunt, the baker and his wife are seeking to reverse a curse placed upon them by Meryl Streep’s vengeful witch. To be successful they must collect a series of objects (a red cape, a white cow, a golden slipper and some corn-yellow hair), a mission that takes them into the familiar stories of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy).
Johnny Depp does a panto turn as the Big Bad Wolf and Chris Pine goes campily over-the-top as Prince Charming (his duet, ‘Agony’ with Rapunzel’s prince, Billy Magnussen, is a hoot), but their co-stars go for the emotional truth in their characters.
And there is plenty of that in Sondheim’s music and lyrics. His contrapuntal harmonies and intricate wordplay may not leave you humming but they are full of beauty and rueful wisdom. Yet I fear that Marshall’s film version may prove too sweet for Sondheim lovers and too bitter for the Disney crowd.
Certificate PG. Runtime 125 mins. Director Rob Marshall.
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