Fans of the Tony Award-winning musical “Into the Woods” were fairly horrified about a Disney-produced movie adaptation. Imaginations ran wild at the prospect of what might get cut from the original, an intricate fable that thumbed its nose at “happily ever after” and embraced the grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales.
First the good news: Despite some streamlining for time and ratings purposes, director Rob Marshall’s adaptation is not all kid’s stuff with singing teapots and friendly mice. There are plenty of dark detours. And the bad news? The thing that made the 1987 Broadway production by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine somewhat problematic — its sprawling array of characters running on a hamster wheel of plot points — is still here, too. Yes, the concept is clever, the performances are strong and the music is brilliant. But there’s something conspicuously missing amid all the chaos: a heart.
A jumble of interconnected stories are framed by the tale of a baker and his wife. The couple, played by James Corden and Emily Blunt, are desperate for a child but unable to conceive because of a curse placed on the family by their next-door neighbor, a grotesque witch (Meryl Streep). The only way to break the spell is to do the bidding of the witch and collect ingredients for a magic potion: a cow as white as snow, a cape as red as blood, yellow hair the color of corn and a gold slipper. And, of course, there’s a tight timeline. The couple has three days to collect the odd assortment of objects.
So off they go, into the woods, where their search brings them into contact with Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone) and other fairy tale mainstays — evil stepmothers, princes, that kind of thing.
On this journey, the baker and his wife are looking for their happy ending, and so is everyone else. But the movie, just like the original, is less concerned with tidy resolutions and more interested in what happens after that. Once we get what we want, are we ever really satisfied?
The casting for the movie is outstanding. Streep is marvelous, as always, but in this case she outdoes even herself (and the script) by bringing a degree of poignancy to her conniving character.
The population’s dilemmas in this fantastical universe are resonant enough that they should stir up emotions, but there are so many characters with too many problems. Cinderella isn’t sure about settling down and her prince is kind of a womanizer; the witch is terrified of becoming an empty nester; and the baker and his wife are, of course, dealing with fertility issues. And that’s just a tiny sampling.
The movie strays at times from the musical, but there is enough darkness to assuage the fans who feared the Disney- fying of coarser moments. Johnny Depp is uncomfortably lascivious as the wolf who wants a piece of Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella’s stepsisters go to great lengths to get their feet into that gold slipper. (Baby toes are extraneous anyway, right?)
There are some fine doses of comedy, too, as when two cheesy princes try to outperform each other in the duet “Agony,” each expressing the pain of being in love. “Agony! Far more painful than yours, when you know she would go with you if there only were doors,” sings Rapunzel’s paramour.
Some of the musical’s superfans will feel shortchanged by the movie no matter what, but you have to give credit where it’s due. The adaptation is pretty faithful to the original — for better and worse.
★ ★ ½
PG. At area theaters. Contains fantasy action, peril and some suggestive material. 126 minutes.