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Stephen Sondheim is one of the world’s most famous composers of Broadway musicals (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) and now one of his most cherished musicals, Into the Woods, has made its way to the big screen by talented Oscar-winning director Rob Marshall (Chicago). The good news, the musical has been kept in proper shape and falls closer in quality to Marshall’s Chicago, rather than his disappointing musical Nine.
The story is a modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales and follows the classic tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel. They are all tied together by an original story involving a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), their wish to begin a family, and their interaction with The Witch (Meryl Streep, in an Oscar-nominated performance), who has put a curse on them. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) has run away from the prince (Chris Pine), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is off to grandma’s house, with the wolf (Johnny Depp) lurking close behind, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is trying to sell his cow for money, and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) has been locked away in a tower. All of these characters will connect and cross paths in the woods, in the most unlikeliest of ways.
Director Rob Marshall and writer James Lapine take a sprawling cast of characters and are able to effectively juggle the various plot threads in a streamlined manner, making it appeal to those familiar with the story and those new to the woods. Since this movie is a Disney production, it’s a tricky proposition to take the darker elements and still manage to make it appeal to family audiences. Marshall and his team successfully retain the essence of the story, while not losing some of the subversive edges of the musical. He stages thrilling musical sequences, like the opening number, which sets up all of the key players and situations effectively. Despite opening up the movie in a cinematic manner, Marshall gives the film an intimacy, which allows the audience to connect with the characters. The production and costume designs are marvelous and visually striking. These elements capture the magically rich elements of the story, while showcasing some of the darker elements that lie underneath the surface. Marshall assembles a talented ensemble to make it all come magically together.
The cast delivers in a big way. Emily Blunt and James Corden provide strong performances as The Baker and The Baker’s Wife. Blunt is terrific in showcasing a touching vulnerability. She brings dimensions to role as her journey becomes more morally complex. Corden provides some wonderful comedic timing, while displaying some tender moments. He happens to have some solid singing pipes as well. Anna Kendrick does memorable work as Cinderella. She showcases her well-known strong singing, while displaying the confusion of her situation in a relatable fashion. Johnny Depp is solid as the mischievous wolf, though his character has an underlying creepiness that offsets the story. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttelstone are effective as Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, proving the right amount of annoyance and impressive singing.Mackenzie Mauzy is good in the role of Rapunzel, but her character is underdeveloped and not as fully realized as the rest of the cast. Billy Magnussen as her prince has some wonderful moments and is a talented performer. He has nice chemistry with Mauzy’s Rapunzel and provides some lovely romantic sparks.
The two standouts of the movie though, are Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince and Meryl Streep as The Witch. Pine is a thrilling surprise, displaying comedic timing and charm like we have never seen before. He provides, along with Magnussen, the standout musical moment of the movie in “Agony,” a show stopping number full of hilarity and heart. Pine also displays considerable range as a singer. He nearly steals the movie. Meryl Streep once again impresses, as The Witch. Being the skilled actor we have come to expect from Streep, she once again digs deep to provide The Witch with a moving humanity. She does some of the best singing of her career as well, hitting notes never heard from her before. Her two numbers, “Stay with Me” and “Last Midnight” are powerhouses that are delivered beautifully by one of our finest actresses. This is one of the best casts assembled for a movie in 2014.
There are some flaws that prevent the movie from reaching the full heights of Marshall’s Chicago. This is particularly evident in the third act of the movie, when things turn dark in the story. There are some pacing issues that feel drawn out, which drags the movie a bit, but luckily, thanks to the instincts of Marshall as a director, he alleviates this issue with a rousing musical number. The movie may not be a perfect musical, but it’s certainly one of the best I have seen in a little while. Marshall and his cast deliver emotional musical numbers full of humor and heartbreak. They capture the subversive spirit of Sondheim’s play, while bring it to vital life cinematically. A wonderfully entertaining and memorable treat.