For a director, seeing your first movie win an Academy Award can be the best - or worst - thing that could ever happen. It certainly proved to be a mixed blessing for Rob Marshall, who watched his 2002 version of Chicago take home the best picture prize.
Marshall followed that up three years later with a pretty but unmemorable adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha that under-whelmed critics and audiences alike. And his heavily hyped filming of the Broadway hit Nine, with Daniel Day Lewis as a promiscuous Italian filmmaker wooing a bevy of beauties, really fell flat.
So you can forgive Stephen Sondheim cultists and musical theater fans for being a little bit suspicious when Marshall was announced as the director of Into the Woods. When the musical opened on Broadway in 1987, there was some confusion over what the show was supposed to be.
Although it featured Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk fame), Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the show's book, ventured beyond the stories' comfortable conclusions to see what might lie on the other side of happily ever after. That bewildered some parents who mistook Into the Woods for a children's show and were startled by the innuendo, violence and adult themes that ran through the material.
More alarm bells sounded a few months ago when Sondheim dropped hints that Disney had softened up the screenplay of Into the Woods and toned down the darker elements. That now turns out not to be the case. While Into the Woods has a PG rating and a few subplots and songs have been trimmed, the spirit of the piece is definitely maintained. Marshall skillfully balances the humor, poignancy and menace in the sprawling story, and he gets exemplary work from an outstanding cast.
The center of Into the Woods is a witch, played with the right amount of haughtiness and scheming by Meryl Streep. The witch coerces a childless baker and his wife, played by the wonderful James Corden and Emily Blunt, to journey into the mysterious forest to retrieve four ingredients she needs for a special potion: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold. If they succeed, the witch will see to it that they get the baby they have been wishing for.
In fact, everyone in Into the Woods does a lot of wishing. Cinderella, played by the radiant Anna Kendrick, pleads to the spirit of her mother for an elegant disguise to wear to the festival being sponsored by Prince Charming, played by a deliciously smug Chris Pine.
Little Red Riding Hood, played by Lilla Crawford, wishes for sweets and runs afoul of a wolf, played by Johnny Depp, who tries to tempt her away from her path with alluring distractions. Jack, played by Daniel Huttlestone, and his impoverished, long-suffering mother, played with comic gusto by Tracey Ullman, wish for a better life. Rapunzel, played by Mackenzie Mauzy, wishes to see what's outside the tower in which she's trapped.
But each of the characters is destined to learn that getting what you want does not guarantee you'll be satisfied and every happy ending comes at a high price. Although the first half of Into the Woods is mostly wacky and lighthearted, the rest of the story becomes more complex and challenging, as statuses change, romances end, new threats emerge and everyone learns more about themselves and the world around them.
Marshall brings the various storylines together into a delightful tale that is graced, of course, with typically stunning and devilishly clever songs from Sondheim. Solo after solo hits the mark, from Streep's heartbreaking rendition of "Stay With Me" to Kendrick's superb delivery of "On the Steps of the Palace." And Blunt gives a dazzling reading of "Moments in the Woods," in which the Baker's Wife tries to sort out her feelings after a passionate fling.
Into the Woods is a terrific translation of a fine show, retaining the power of the original piece and enhancing it through imaginative direction. For anyone who loves musicals, this is just about everything they could wish for.