When I saw the stage play Into the Woods, I really couldn't imagine how it could possibly be turned into a film, since the concept is inherently so fantastical that it begs not to be taken seriously for a single second. That's less of a problem on the stage, since watching a play requires a more extended suspension of disbelief from the outset. But, as he did with 2002's Chicago, Rob Marshall manages to put together a pretty faithful adaptation of the play, by pretty much driving it straight down the middle with no embellishments, and letting Stephen Sondheim's songs do most of the work for him.
The setup of Into the Woods involves many familiar fairy tale characters, including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (from Jack and the Beanstalk) all running into each other throughout the dark woods over the course of three nights as they run to and from various parts of their own stories, while two original characters, the Baker and his wife, try to perform the task of gathering items from these people in the service of a witch, who will lift her curse on them if they bow to her will. The pleasure of the story simply involves watching all the characters run past each other in a frenzy (which Rob Marshall tones down, as the play was practically a screwball farce) and sing the long-winded Sondheim dialogue. If anyone's familiar with his music you know there's less hook than verse in his lyrics, and most of the dialogue is sung throughout the entire film. But the actors here are good singers and perform their parts well, while Marshall does not make the mistake Tom Hooper did of trying to out direct the material with suffocating closeups and wacky camerawork.
The pace is straightforward, significantly slowed down from the stage play, and every character gets their moment in the spotlight, especially Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife and Meryl Streep as the Witch (although neither of them hold a candle to their stage counterparts, Joanna Gleason and Bernadette Peters, who brought humor, energy and pizazz to their roles that couldn't be duplicated in a more serious rendering). The rest of the cast is admirable as well, with James Corden, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine holding their own in what's truly an ensemble piece. I especially appreciated that every actor was allowed to simply speak in their own voice, whether American or British, an old-school touch from back in the days when Hollywood studios didn't worry about matching accents in musical universes, which everyone understood were mostly fantasy in the first place.
Into the Woods is enjoyable, if slight and a bit forgettable, aside from the music of course. That was something you probably couldn't say about the play, whether you loved or hated it- but by stripping down the high comedy and over the top manic energy, it becomes a competent production with nice costumes and production design, but nothing more than that. I still liked the movie overall, if only because by simply being a successful live action stage adaption, it's ten times the movie Les Miserables was. And since I held my breath going into this because of that film, this was a huge relief in comparison.
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