When choosing Into the Woods as my Pick of the Week, I noted that I’m not as big of a theater geek as I once imagined. Sometimes I get bored in the theater and I’m finally in a place where I can not only admit that, but also be perfectly okay with it as well. I came to Rob Marshall’s movie version of Stephen Sondheim’s much-beloved musical with a lot of hopefulness, but also a touch of trepidation. What if I didn’t like it, or worse, what if I didn’t get it? I’m able to now say I’m not the geek I once was, but if I don’t understand one of the theater lovers’ favorite shows I might as well start watching nothing but Michael Bay films.
Thankfully I can turn off Pearl Harbor and readily announce I loved Into the Woods. It is a wonderful, delightful film. We’ll start with Sondheim who wrote the music and lyrics. It was he who actually made me a little nervous at first. I know of Stephen Sondheim but I know very little of his work. I’ve seen A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and that’s it. His reputation as one of the great musical writers precedes him and all my theater friends love him, but for whatever reason I’ve just not sat down with his work very much. He’s known as a complicated, rather verbose lyricist, and I feared I’d get lost. I like musicals; I’ve never really understood the complaint some people have about how unrealistic it is for characters to suddenly break out into song. That’s the charm of musicals, I think. However, I prefer my musical numbers to supplement the actual story of the show, to be the sprinkles on my cupcake and not to be the cupcake itself. I’m simply not a lyrics guy. My wife can tell you that there are lots of pop songs that I have absolutely loved for many decades, but whose lyrics I know nothing about. That’s just the way my mind works. So when musicals have very little spoken dialogue and use the songs to do things like propel the plot along I’m usually left confused.
My worries that Into the Woods would fall into this confusing category were alleviated by two things: there are actually plenty of spoken parts to fill me in on the story and I used the subtitle option on the Blu-ray. My God, subtitles are the work of angels. I actually turn them on pretty much all the time now because I have a three-year-old who makes a lot of noise and keeps me from hearing most dialogue. But I find myself turning them on even while she’s away. Being able to read the dialogue as well as hear it has allowed me to understand so much more about films and television than ever before. With this film, it really brought home just how wonderful a lyricist Sondheim really is. He’s so lyrical, funny, wise, and clever. Over and over again, I let out a little gasp at how perfect one line or another was. His music likewise is just marvelous. His songs aren’t really catchy – they aren’t the sort of things you’ll likely find yourself singing days after you’ve seen the film, but they are wonderful just the same.
For those who don’t know Into the Woods is something of a mash-up of old fairy-tale characters. There’s Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) looking for her Prince Charming (Chris Pine), then there’s Jack of Beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone) looking to sell his cow, and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) stuck in the tower with her hair. Plus, you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and the wolf (Johnny Depp). The stories are tied together by a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who have been cursed by a witch (Meryl Streep). Each of these characters have their own stories but ultimately wind up crossing paths in various ways in a completely imaginative and wonderful ways.
Just look at that cast and tell me you aren’t ready to watch it by name recognition alone? (and I didn’t even mention that Tracey Ullman has a small part.) They all do a fantastic job, but it’s Anna Kendrick, James Corden, and Meryl Streep who stand out. I realize that while I’ve actually seen very few films with Anna Kendrick in them I like her very much. Such is her charm, grace, and presence. Likewise, I’ve only seen Corden in a Doctor Who episode, but I found him quite delightful. Meryl Streep is as wonderful as ever. She’s clearly having an enormous amount of fun as the Witch.
Director Rob Marshall handles the material adeptly. I very much liked his adaptation of Chicago a few years back and he’s once again shown he can move material from the stage to the screen. Special props must go to the set designers and cinematographer. Every scene simply pops off the screen and looks stunning. So much of the film takes place in the woods and the designers have done a fantastic job of making it look not only beautiful and creepy but different enough from scene to scene that you feel the enchantment of the place that is really just a bunch of trees.
As this is a Disney film, it has been greatly noted that a lot of the sharper, and darker edges of the musical have been dulled and brightened. Not being familiar with the stage version, I can’t say much to that, but I found that it held a much darker tone than your typical Disney fare with a story that will no doubt confuse and enrage a certain section of the Mouse’s normal audience (one look at the IMDB reviews makes it plenty clear more than a few folks went in completely unaware of what they were getting into).
Without spoiling it, I’ll also want to note that a pretty big thematic change about halfway through the film in which our happy ending takes some very dark turns. Again, you’ll find a host of folks completely turned off by this, but I found it quite wonderful. It’s a story with much more depth of meaning than your typical Disney musical without sacrificing its humor and joyfulness.
The Blu-ray presentation is pretty close to spectacular. The video is a gorgeous sight. Marshall infuses his film with a lot of lush, earth tones mixed with the inherent darkness of the forest. This 1080p/AVC encoded presentation lushly brings forth the filmmaker’s vision to near perfection. Likewise the audio is masterfully put together. There’s a lot of singing in this film, and despite my fondness for subtitles, the lyrics come out crisp. The background noises come in clean and there’s plenty of those as well as booms during the bigger action sequences.
The extras consist of the standard stuff, but there’s plenty of them and they generally rise above the regular EPK junk we’ve comes to expect. Rob Marshall and John DeLuca do an interesting audio commentary. There are three short featureless on the making of the film and its production. Most of the cast come out for these and there thought are mostly interesting. You also have the ability to watch just the songs (with optional lyrics) and they’ve included “She’ll Be Back” a song Sondheim wrote specifically for the film that was ultimately cut for pacing reasons.
Into the Woods brings out my inner theater geek. I just loved every bit of it. Those looking for your cookie-cutter Disney musical should stay away and Sondheim purists will no doubt be miffed at the absence of certain songs and the dulling of the sharper edges, but for everyone else this is highly recommended.