AS A MUSICAL theatre nerd (please don’t question my life choices), no other name fills performers with as much excitement and dread as Stephen Sondheim. Over a career spanning 60 years, starting as a lyricist before evolving to total authorship, Sondheim became the king of complex, challenging songs which test even the most trained veterans. Although he can certainly write beautiful and elegant music, his songs are just as often discordant and stylistically unpleasant.
Unlike the more vaudevillian musicals of his predecessors, he uses music for dramatic and violent scenes as much as he does for declarations of love and energetic dance numbers. His shows are long, dense and elegantly inelegant, always impressive but not always likeable. In an expensive and unforgiving genre of mass entertainment, he takes risks which the Lloyd-Webbers of the world simply wouldn’t.
That said, I’ve never really liked Into the Woods. The show was a good twenty years old by the time I saw it (and even then, it was a recording of the show rather than a live production) and while it was damned clever and had some fine music, other dark retellings of fairy tales had beaten me to it. There’s a place in the world for paedophilic undertones and extra-marital affairs, but when placed so explicitly in “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” it always struck me as gratuitous and pretentious. I’ve studied enough English Literature lectures to be sick of the “grimmer side of Grimm”, but if this is your first trip to that particular avenue of literary revisionism then it may leave a stronger impact.
When the news broke that a movie of Into the Woods, edging close to its fourth decade, was finally out of development hell, there were trepidations all round. The first two castings I heard were Meryl Streep as the Witch and Johnny Depp as the Wolf. The former is a major role, the latter a glorified cameo. Meryl Streep is not only a legendary actress who seems incapable of avoiding an Oscar nomination; she’s also a competent singer who acts the hell out of every note.
Her performance, though it didn’t merit a nomination while Jessica Chastain was left wanting, is still as powerful as we’ve come to expect. Depp, meanwhile, chews up the scenery, sings one short number and then sods off shortly afterwards, not loitering around long enough to drain all the gravitas out of another Sondheim protagonist with his pitchy, scratchy, not-really-a-singing-voice. Depp sold out on growing as an actor in favour of being a bug-eyed clown about a decade ago, so no surprises here.
Luckily, Depp is the weakest singer of the A-listers in this huge cast. Anna Kendrick continues her campaign to be the go-to actress for musicals; she’s got The Last Five Years and Pitch Perfect 2 on the way, and is at the top of many fan-made lists for upcoming musical films such as Wicked. Anna plays Cinderella, a role which could easily be a forgettable bland pretty face (like Rapunzel in this film), but Kendricks it up to such an extent that I turned her name into a verb.
It remains to be seen just how much range she has as an actress beyond the “quirky awkward dream girl who’s incredibly pretty but plausibly single” she’s played in nearly everything so far, but she does it so well that it’s hard to resist. If her constant output is any indication, she’ll be a star for a long time coming.
British actor and comedian James Corden, best known for Gavin and Stacey and for picking the wrong co-star from that show to keep working with, plays the Baker. He’s perfectly cast, acting with sincerity and charm, and his singing is strong though two of his character’s major numbers from the show were cut for time. He is overshadowed much of the time, though, by his wife (no, neither of these principal characters have names) played by rising star Emily Blunt.
Blunt’s singing ability hasn’t surfaced before, to my knowledge, but she absolutely knocks it out of the park in this movie. Her voice is beautiful and she gives a grounded, sturdy performance which holds the film together. Blunt has spent the last decade on the cusp of the A-list, and the recent one-two punch of Edge of Tomorrow and Into the Woods (during which she was pregnant, I might add) was probably the last step.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by a number of seasoned stars; Tracey Ullman makes a welcome return to relevance playing Jack’s mother, Christine Baranski is in this because she’s in everything, and hunky actor Chris Pine performs one of the film’s most comically over-the-top songs “Agony”. Joining them are child actors Daniel Huttlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood. Huttlestone brings charm and charisma beyond his years, plus a great singing voice, to Jack just as he brought to Gavroche in Les Miserables. I hope his career continues beyond mere child stardom, because there’s a real talent here.
Crawford’s biggest gig up to this point was playing Annie on Broadway, and while she’s got a remarkable voice and plays her role’s precociousness and obnoxiousness excellently, you can tell she’s yet to shake off the role of Annie. In a film with a hodge-podge of accents, her put-upon New York accent is the most jarring.
The most controversial aspect of the film among fans of the show was that Disney, inevitably, removed or softened some of the darker, more shocking moments. I would be spoiling the plot to give away too much, but suffice to say that the number of deceased characters is rather higher in the show, and their deaths are often more violent.
The sexual undertones aren’t washed away as much as was feared, and the implications are certainly there, but Disney protects its brand where the princesses are concerned. A number by Cinderella and Rapunzel’s princes about affairs with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty didn’t make it in, and the off-stage sexual encounter between two characters is left even more vague.
Despite all this, the film is a feast for the eyes. The show has used gorgeous sets but relies on a lot of pointing at off-stage beanstalks and giants, and the film can show them with CGI in a way which enhances rather than distracts from the experience. Director Rob Marshall worked as a dancer and a Broadway choreographer before becoming a film director (with Chicago being a huge success), and he knows how to film a sequence as if he is filming a dance. The camera work is elegant and exhilarating, making me wish this guy had been behind the camera of the stilted and aimless Les Miserables rather than Tom Hooper.
Disney has added another great film to their pantheon, and once again shown that they are prepared to take risks and that they know how to film a musical. Sondheim purists may not be thrilled, but film-goers should be satisfied that we have a new musical classic for those rainy afternoons.