Into the Woods, the long-awaited adaptation of the now-classic Sondheim musical, is one of the finest contemporary movie musicals, and arguably the best since the instant classic Chicago (also by director Rob Marshall). Marshall translates an incredibly difficult work from stage to screen, and makes bold, fascinating choices to bring this story to an entirely new medium.
The original Broadway production featured flat, storybook-esque set panels which rose to reveal the dark and prickly woods, but still within mostly the same frame of vision – the focus, of course, less on the realism of a physical set and more on the narrative and raw emotion transpiring onstage. For film, though, a much more literal telling is required, and the flat cottages of the main characters are fleshed out into believable, three-dimensional, sweeping environments.
This more formal, concrete element is where Marshall’s directing chops are really illuminated. The choices he makes, given the sharply different setting, are fascinating in how they subtly convey the story. Within the Baker’s shop, for instance, the shots of the Witch are mostly facing the doorway (the outside world) while the shots of the Baker and his Wife are facing inside; this decision implying the Witch’s role as both the couple’s gateway to the outside world, as well as their obstacle from it (by physically blocking the doorway), told purely through visuals.
The careful planning in constructing each scene makes me eager to revisit this work; with so many engaging character interactions and little moments of power plays and bartering, there is undoubtedly a great deal more to discover within this piece.
Upon immediate viewing, however, it is clear how pitch-perfect the casting choices were. Emily Blunt, in the finest performance I’ve seen her give, is a revelation as the Baker’s Wife, Anna Kendrick plays a genuine heartfelt Cinderella, and Meryl Streep is a captivating, often hilarious Witch. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilariously over-the-top as Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes, in a borderline obscene duet of sexual frustration whilst prancing around waterfalls.
Which brings us to an interesting point – Disney’s adaptation of this piece was prematurely criticized for lightening up the original’s darker themes for mass consumption by a more general audience. These fears, in my opinion, were in vain; while children may not pick up on the sexual subtext of the princes’ duet, romantic infidelity, or predatory strangers, these darker ideas certainly come through in the film version. Without spoiling, I truly applaud the changes from the musical to film; the work ends with a different finale song, leaving a very different tone and ultimate effect than the musical does.
This movie marks such an important moment for Disney. The adult themes are not ideas Disney films have really gone into, and certainly not regarding the fairy-tale characters they are so known for. Journeying into such territory, in addition to adapting such a complex, ambitious show, is a fantastic step for the Studios and would be a wonderful sign of things to come. This is truly one of the best movies of the year.