Legendary composer, Stephen Sondheim, once said in regards to his musicals “I prefer actors who can sing versus singers who can’t act…” If that is the case I am afraid Mr. Sondheim may find himself disappointed with the movie adaptation of his Tony-winning musical Into the Woods. Now before I continue, I will make it known to my reader that I am writing as a Sondheim fan and as a musical theatre performer, I am a little biased. I will also blatantly say that this latest Disney film, which is destined to sweep the box office this Holiday season, is not bad. In fact, it is very entertaining, visually stunning and wonderfully cast.
The musical tells the story of various characters from the world’s most beloved assortment of fairy tales and how they meet, struggle and attempt to achieve their dreams in the woods. We have Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and his beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, a baker and his wife and of course the Witch. Every character longs for something they cannot have. The baker and his wife dream of having a child, Cinderella wants to attend the King’s festival, Rapunzel wishes to escape her tower and Jack tries to help support his penniless mother. With lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music) and a book by James Lapine (Passion, Impromptu) Into the Woods explains how not all heroes and heroines are good and that not all villains are bad. Every person has a good and evil side and that we are all guilty of doing selfish things in order to obtain what we want. While it may sound like a dark and dreary concept, the musical is actually a beautiful mix of drama and comedy and it contains some of Broadway’s most cherished songs.
The film, as I mentioned previously, is very entertaining. Unlike previous attempts at stage-to-screen musicals, Into the Woods differs because every cast member can sing and they can sing very well. While the Disney flick boasts a star-filled cast, one can see that not a single ensemble member was thrown into the mix simply for “star power.” However, that is actually the film’s problem. Yes, every actor can sing but, I feel that director, Rob Marshall (Chicago), placed more importance on the singing and focused less on the acting. While it is a musical, and while there is more music than dialogue, what makes a musical powerful is when the acting and musical performances are equally as strong. That is simply not the case here. If performed correctly, Into the Woods can be a bit of a tearjerker. The musical truly captures mankind’s constant quest for happiness and how we are all guilty of making poor decisions that often have a negative effect on people we may not even know all on our own selfish accord. Disney’s 2-hour long film doesn’t carry that message. It more so functions as a flashy, Tim Burton-esque musical with huge Hollywood names.
Now as much as I would like to complain about the cast and how they missed “the mark,” from a strictly musical perspective I don’t have many negative things to say. Lilla Crawford (Broadway’s Annie) is a brilliantly cast Little Red Riding Hood, Johnny Depp (who is shockingly only in the film for a mere five minutes!) reprises his Jack Sparrow antics and gives a creepy yet stirring performance as the Wolf. Anna Kendrick makes for a sweet and innocent Cinderella and her singing is on point-though that shouldn’t come as a surprise given her recent musical projects such as Pitch Perfect and the upcoming The Last Five Years. Chris Pine (Star Trek) gives a hilarious Antonio Banderas-inspired performance as Cinderella’s arrogant prince and Tony Award winner James Corden is a wonderful baker. Emily Blunt, however, steals the show with her emotionally-charged performance as the Baker’s Wife. Now, last but not least, there’s Meryl Streep. While I never thought I would say this, Streep actually gave my least favorite performance of the film as the Evil Witch. Perhaps it is simply because Bernadette Peters originated the role on Broadway and instead of following in Ms. Peters’ footsteps, Streep instead tried to bring her own style to the role. While this usually works, in this case it didn’t. The first half hour of the film, Streep seems hesitant and unsure of her character and unfortunately this hesitance doesn’t improve or diminish throughout the film.
Bottom Line: Into the Woods is going to be a crowd pleaser. With its cast, musical numbers and fairy tale characters, Disney can rest safe and sound with their movie musical and its future box office success. However, if you are searching for a more stirring and memorable rendition of this Sondheim classic you should simply watch the filmed stage version of the original Broadway cast.
Mallory Delchamp is a writer, model, and performer living in Manhattan. You can routinely read her film and music reviews here on Pop-Break and you can also check out her work on zumic.com and nytheatreguide.com. A social media and pop culture enthusiast, Mallory also enjoys musical theatre, superhero films, and drinking coffee. You can visit Mallory at her website, www.mallorydelchamp.com