Well-executed movie musical requires a special audience

The musical form succeeds well on the stage, where the audience comes to the piece with a prior agreement to buy into the artifice of people expressing their thoughts and feelings through song. But movies inherently provide a degree of realism that makes the conventions of musicals harder to pull off. The best musicals on film—e.g., The Wizard of Oz, Chicago—create an alternate reality that allows for characters who sing. So movie musicals, especially modern ones, are unusual beasts that require a specific type of audience. If you, as the audience, agree to the singing conceit, fine. If not, you may be in for a long and awkward two hours.

Once past that hurdle, Into The Woods (based on the perennially favorite Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine) is a delightful and dark exploration of conventional fairy tales that have been given unconventional resolutions.

The Woods in question is the common gathering point for some of our storybook favorites: Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Rapunzel, the Baker and his wife, Cinderella, and Jack (of beanstalk fame). In Sondheim’s iteration, these tales coincide and eventually become comingled, but all of them echo a central theme of longing, even desperation.
The intertwined stories of Into The Woods are given further resonance by the intricately complex and trenchant music of Sondheim. Long-celebrated master of both inventive meter and fanciful wordplay, Sondheim demands careful listening on the part of the audience and adroit performance from those who would sing it.

Thankfully, the all-star cast nearly all rise to the challenge. Meryl Streep as The Witch and Anna Kendrick as Cinderella have already established their ability as musical performers, albeit usually with easier material, at least on screen. Here again they are engaging in both their acting and singing. The biggest, and most delightful, surprise for me is Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. Blunt has demonstrated her versatility as an actress from The Devil Wears Prada to Edge of Tomorrow. But here, she is wonderfully appealing with a sure, sweet voice that complements her acting skills.

The rest of the cast, who also acquit themselves quite well, includes James Corden, Chris Pine, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, and in a much-welcome return to the screen, Tracey Ullman.

As directed by Rob Marshall (Oscar-nominated for Chicago), the complicated plot moves along briskly, and the cinematography of Dion Beebe is rich yet foreboding. Dennis Gassner’s production design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes contribute to an atmosphere that neatly rides the line between fairy tale and reality.

Into The Woods will not appeal to all viewers. Its highly theatrical nature will strike some as over the top (as in the song “Agony”). But for Sondheim devotees—really for all musical fans—it is greatly satisfying to see a grand work of the stage translated so effectively to the screen. That’s a resolution that can make everyone happy…ever after.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.