When people think of musicals, I don’t think they automatically think of Stephen Sondheim’s polyphonic and almost incessantly minor style; they’re more likely to reference the bigger, cheesier likes of Wicked and Hairspray. But he struck gold with his show Sweeney Todd, later portrayed in film by Johnny Depp, and what is arguably his second most well-known work has now also made it to the big screen.
Into The Woods ties together threads from most of our traditional fairytales, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. The first half of the film – act one – follows these to their natural end and the expected happily ever after as they all weave a tangled web. But then, of course, there are darker things to come and the intriguing slogan of ‘be careful what you wish for’ comes into play.
The cast is a mixture of mostly famous British and American actors who can generally all sing well, which may pleasantly surprise. James Corden is the least strong singer but holds his own in an early duet with Emily Blunt, who is unexpectedly the best singer. Meryl Streep is quite bewitching (geddit?) and the two princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, were as charming, dreamy and smooth as you could hope for. As their princesses, Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) is an absolute delight with a beautiful soprano voice but MacKenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel) is somewhat forgettable.
With a cast this strong, if not exactly consistent, the musical is done justice. It may not be a perfect musical – there are no real stand out numbers except the Into the Woods prologue and perhaps the princes’ Agony, the last chapter of the story is a little too long and the original Meryl Streep song is not entirely necessary – but it does work. The fairytales are as fantastical and fun as they should be, Sondheim’s score is remarkably clever and now has the potential to open his music to a wider audience, and even the child actors are not as annoying as they generically seem to be in most film musicals.
Into The Woods has been a long time in production and admittedly was not the most cinematic feat, given the majority of it is set in a forest, but it is a joy and a great addition to the musical film genre.