When you’re as much of a fan of an established property that gets its own film adaptation, it’s often hard to step back and separate one from the other. 2012’s Les Misérables was given sweeping life with the full weight of a movie studio’s magic; however, on repeat views, it falls a little short trying to outdo its original stage production. It’s an odd phenomenon, where a limited stage provides so much more warmth and connection to an audience that a film totally misses or tries to ignore altogether. Rob Marshall’s filmed production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s famed Into The Woods carefully walks that line between intimate and larger-than-life, staying true to its stage roots while endeavoring to lend it a cinematic scope.
Does it work? Most of the time, yes. Marshall gives us enough large-scale exterior shots to establish the oddly barren grandeur of this faraway kingdom, yet balances that out with set pieces that painfully remind the viewer that they’re watching a movie filmed on a set in a studio, not on location in a forest somewhere. The actors do wonderfully to fill the spaces and make us forget a lot of the time, but as with Marshall’s Chicago, the musical numbers made to feel just like you’ve been seeing them for years in a darkened Broadway theater.
The conceit is simple, recently having been appropriated by ABC’s hit show “Once Upon A Time.” We’ve all heard the fairy tales, but it’s the “happily ever after” that you often wind up wondering more about – how each principal character lived their lives after they have their wishes granted. Here, we have Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), and Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), with a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) thrown in there as kind of the framework that holds everyone together.
The first half of the movie, just like the first act of the stage play, is spent establishing the characters and their fairytale arcs. Cinderella wishes to go to the ball and meet the Prince (Chris Pine), but cannot due to her wicked stepmother (the ever-maniacal Christine Baranski) being, well, wicked. Another Prince (Billy Magnussen) finds a beautiful young woman with long blonde hair who’s been locked away in a tower by her Witch mother (Meryl Streep). Red Riding Hood needs to get to her grandmother’s house, but is waylaid by a Wolf (Johnny Depp) and taught a valuable lesson. Jack and his mother (Tracy Ullman) need to sell their cow for rent and food, but eventually come into the possession of magic beans which bring Jack to a giant’s door.
Finally, the Baker and his wife are desperate to have a child, but they need to get ingredients to make a potion for the aforementioned Witch in order to reverse a curse that’s been put on the Baker since an act of thievery long ago set a large number of these events in motion. This story is the X-factor, the one that’s not already based on an existing fairytale; it is the central narrative of Into the Woods, providing all the impetus and drive behind the story’s events. Lines are crossed, betrayals abound, and harsh truths are brought to light as the second half – the “ever after” – unfolds and plays to its tragic end.
The seemingly out-of-nowhere casting of James Corden into a stable of well-known faces came as a shock to most, but those of us familiar with him through as little as his two appearances on BBC’s “Doctor Who” could see a talent waiting to break out. Corden shapes The Baker well, caught in that place between befuddlement and decisive, thrust into a father figure role for which his character is ill-prepared. Balancing him out is the ever-wonderful Emily Blunt, whose innocence is only matched by her cunning. However, the one everyone’s going to be talking about Meryl Streep as The Witch, and with good reason; her performance is so riddled with nuance and skillful intonation that we often forget that it’s Streep under all the makeup and the prosthetic nose. She becomes The Witch, in all of her ugly glory, seething and preening her way through to her final transformation and beyond.
So… why the three stars? Because of what Disney has done to this play. While keeping the surface events intact, a lot of the play’s edge and subtext have been thrown out in order to make it safe. As presented on the Broadway stage, “Into the Woods” was never safe; I mean, for God’s sakes, The Wolf’s costume featured testicles on the outside of the costume, thereby making subtext plain old text. A central theme of loss is totally wasted on one of the characters for whom it was supposed to hit the hardest. There are no undertones, no symbolism, no further meaning behind it all – they went and straight-up made this a family movie. Which, I guess, is all right, if the intent was to make a fun kind of feature that could be watched by child and adult alike. However, forsaking that edginess and pushing it into a totally safe world makes it just another movie for me to watch on a Saturday afternoon.