The challenge of adapting any stage musical to film is a significant one. This is obviously true for a well-known hit such as Les Miserables¸ but even a relative rarity such as Into The Woods – a Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine creation from the 80s – comes with its own set of challenges: not least how to attract a cinema audience that would mostly never choose to go to see an off-Broadway deconstruction of the idea of fairy tales.
Into The Woods, however, should manage to please the fans and the uninitiated alike. It’s admittedly not the simplest concept a musical has ever had: mix half a dozen different fairy tales together, stir them around and then destroy their assorted happy endings for the sake of pointing out that real life is much messier and more difficult than any of us would like to believe. This descent into the gloom of reality is made palatable through the inclusion of much ridiculous and self-referential humour: an early example comes when Little Red Riding Hood, skipping off into the eponymous woods to see Granny, blithely observes that “for all that I know, she’s already dead!”
The credit for balancing this absurdity against the darker side of fairy tales goes mainly to the truly excellent cast, who can switch from one to the other in the blink of an eye. Johnny Depp disappointingly proves the only exception, yet he thankfully plays a more minor role than the promotional posters would have you believe.
The entire cast are good singers, good actors and perfectly matched to their roles.
Not one of them manages to steal the show, but each claims the limelight completely when they have it, and special mention should go to James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife, who carry the emotional heart of the storyline and together ensure that the ending feels earned rather than sappy. Meryl Streep as the Witch is also a revelation in a role which could easily have descended to maniacal cackling in lesser hands.
Directing and editing choices are also well-judged, making the relatively featureless woods a fascinating setting for over half the film’s running time, tightening the musical up and preventing it from wallowing in either emotion or its own cleverness too much. A number of songs from the stage version are dropped, but mostly these don’t feel like as much of a loss as one might expect. In particular, the gloriously over-the-top staging of ‘Agony’ – in which two princes emote at each other about how hard life is when your damsel in distress is hard to catch – more than makes up for the loss of its reprise in favour of maintaining a darker tone in the latter part of the musical. Other vanished songs leave their themes behind as background music, and there is even time for a nod to die-hard musical fans at Cinderella’s ball, where a few bars of ‘Night Waltz’ appear from another Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music. Unfortunately, the same deftness is not displayed in the replacement of the Narrator, an on-stage presence with whom the other characters interact, with rather unengaging voiceover narration from the Baker. It would probably have been better to drop the concept entirely.
Ultimately, however, the film’s crowning achievement is that in a media landscape that is currently fairly littered with musicals, adaptations and deconstructions of childhood stories, Into The Woods still manages to stand out as something rather special. By taking us just a little way off the well-trodden path, it breathes a touch of magic back into the world.