Is it me, or are they making films of stage musicals much better these days? Over the years, some of my favourite stage musicals have been made into absolute stinkers – a prime example being A Chorus Line, where they actually changed the story because they thought What I Did For Love worked better as a simple love song between two people rather than being about love for one’s career as a dancer. You did a lot of fantastic things, Sir Richard Attenborough, but I’m afraid that wasn’t one of them. But I found the film version of Les Miserables endlessly more watchable than the stage version, not that being sat in the front row of the dress circle of the Palace theatre with no leg room and with gout is that conducive to theatrical magic. Now into the mix comes Into The Woods, Sondheim’s fairytale fantasy made into an engaging and brilliantly performed film by a first rate cast.
I should state that I’ve never seen a live stage production of Into The Woods, although I have seen a DVD of the original Broadway production. I quite enjoyed it; Mrs Chrisparkle found it a bit “relentless” – her favourite word to describe something she doesn’t like because it just doesn’t let up and sometimes less is more. The show hit Broadway in 1988 and the West End in 1990, at a time when we didn’t go to the theatre much – how weird that feels today. The concept of the show is wonderfully inventive and original and appeals to anyone who, as a child, ever read or was told a fairytale; i.e. everyone. Unlike with A Chorus Line, I’m not an Into The Woods Purist; but if you are, you might be disappointed with some of the story tweaking, the dropping of several songs, making it slightly less violent and more family-friendly, which of course has nothing to do with its being made by Disney.
In a mythical fairyland, four of our favourite childhood heroes all unite to make a new story. Jack (of Beanstalk fame) has to sell his favourite cow to raise money so that he and his mother don’t starve; Little Red Riding Hood has to visit her grandmother to bring her food (if she doesn’t scoff it all herself by the time she gets there); Cinderella has beastly step-sisters who mistreat her and try to prevent her from meeting the Prince at the Royal Ball (that’s a Festival in Sondheim-speak); and Rapunzel is trapped in a tower but will let down her golden hair for anyone who fancies a clamber-up. Meanwhile, the Baker and his wife despair that they can’t have children, and discover it’s because their neighbourhood witch put a spell on their property in revenge for the Baker’s father’s vegetable- and pulse-based kleptomania. But she will lift the spell if the Baker and his wife can provide her with a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn. I’m sure you’ve worked out where this is going. So they all go into the woods; and eventually they furnish the witch with what she needs, the spell is lifted, the Baker and his wife have a child and they all live happily ever after.
Except that they don’t because in Sondheim’s world nobody lives happily ever after. The giant’s wife wreaks havoc (where there’s a beanstalk, there’s a giant, keep up), Rapunzel runs off, Cinderella and the Prince need marriage counselling and the Baker’s wife falls off a cliff. And lots of other people die too. Of course, all this could have been avoided if the Baker and his wife had been mature enough to accept their situation, maybe try a little IVF, or simply change their mind-set from childless to child-free and go out more. There again, there’s no end to what some people will do in order to have kids, as this story proves.
The film looks and sounds ravishing all the way through. Disney threw $50m at it, and it shows. There are some very nice special effects when the witch regularly appears and disappears, nothing too cosmic, just some elegantly done whirlwinds. Sometimes, as Robert Frost would have it, the woods are lovely, dark and deep; sometimes they’re utterly terrifying, the kind of place a lascivious wolf would lurk in order to chat up little girls. Musically it’s a treat for your ears from start to finish. The arrangements are sumptuous and the singing is clear, beautiful, funny, and quirky – all the right ingredients for this show. Into The Woods boasts some stonking good songs, including the main theme, an assorted fugue-like piece of fun which sticks in your head for ages afterwards (I woke up at 4.00am this morning with it running through my brain) and which you can use as a commentary on your daily chores (“into the shop to buy some food”, “into the kitchen to make some tea”, etc, etc, ad nauseam).
The performances are pretty much uniformly superb throughout. James Corden continues to prove why he’s one of our best young actors with a funny, thoroughly believable and surprisingly moving performance as the Baker; and he also provides the narration. Desperate to meet the witch’s demands, he masterminds a cack-handed assault on the roving characters of the woods together with his wife, gaining items from them but losing them on the way too. It’s a bit like an extended, musical round of Jeux Sans Frontières, catching hold of the cape and the hair with one hand but dropping the cow with the other. Emily Blunt gives a wonderfully understated performance as the Baker’s wife with great comic timing and a terrific voice. The two of them become the perfect foil to the mad excesses of Meryl Streep’s witch, dominating proceedings with her sheer energy and attack – although Sondheim gives her some damn good lines to sing too.
The two child performers are absolutely sensational. 13 year old Lilla Crawford plays Little Red Riding Hood like an old pro, completely stealing that first scene in the Bakers’ shop, as she discovers and devours cookies with the efficiency of a heat-seeking missile. When she’s interacting with the other main characters she’s equally as assured as the most experienced of actors. Similarly, 15 year old Daniel Huttlestone, who both warmed and broke your heart as Gavroche in Les Miserables, takes to Jack as a duck to water with his fine singing voice and confident cheeky personality. Anna Kendrick does a good job as the stereotypical Cinderella, putting up with the cruelty of her step-sisters and falling in love with the Prince, but with the added dimension of the role’s darker dénouement too.
One of the best scenes in the film was the song Agony, performed by Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, each trying to out-prince each other as their duet gets progressively wetter, the further into a rocky waterfall they blunder. Both suitors are really well cast, Mr Pine having the terrific line about only being trained to be charming, not sincere; and Mr Magnussen doing a marvellously painful descent on Rapunzel’s hair. I confess, when Rapunzel’s tear dropped onto his eye and he could see again, my brain let out a huge soppy “awwwwww” – I just hope my mouth didn’t hear and follow suit. Mackenzie Mauzy is an excellent Rapunzel, changing from malleable daughter to being unable to forgive her mother – and under the circumstances why would you? – and Johnny Depp is a splendidly eerie and foppish wolf, planning main course and pudding before getting his own just desserts. Cinderella’s horrendous household is very amusingly portrayed by Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch as her villainous step-sisters and Christina Baranski as her brutally bossy stepmother (no Baron Hardup here).
There’s also a lot of fun to be had spotting famous people in minor roles, like Annette Crosbie as Little Red Riding Hood’s granny, Frances de la Tour as the Giant’s wife, and Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s father. But the biggest blast from the past – for me at least – was when Jack’s mother first appeared and I whispered to Mrs C “could that possibly be Tracey Ullman?” who I hadn’t seen since she was in Three of a Kind (whatever happened to David Copperfield) and since she drove away with Paul McCartney in the “They Don’t Know” video. And yes indeed it is Tracey Ullman and she gives a wonderfully warm and funny performance, with no care at all for the moralities of corporal punishment.
Just like when we saw The Theory of Everything last week, my only criticism of the film is that it just goes on a bit too long. Mentally, I did something of a “switch-off” when the witch became beautiful and the bakers got their child. Maybe I’m just a happy ever after kind of person who didn’t need to see all these people’s worlds subsequently fall apart. In the stage production that’s just the end of Act One. Knowing me, I probably needed an interval. When it became clear there was still some distance to go the film just started to tire me. But it’s a bold man who tells Sondheim he’s got it wrong, and I wouldn’t dream of it. All in all it’s a really enjoyable film with great performances and a feast of splendour for the eyes and especially the ears. Making this film guarantees that the show will continue to delight audiences for generations to come.