Into the Woods, musical, rated PG, Regal Stadium 14, 3.5 chiles The musicals of Stephen Sondheim are such creatures of the theater that one fears what may happen when Hollywood sinks its talons into them. When Rob Marshall, who previously directed screen versions of such musicals as Chicago and Nine, broached the idea of a stage-to-screen adaptation with Sondheim, the composer-lyricist suggested Into the Woods as worth contemplating.
It is probably the most performed of Sondheim musicals, its fairy-tale plot making it a standard of youth theaters, where it is often given in an author-sanctioned “junior version” that shears off the psychologically disturbing second act. Marshall’s new film, offered by Walt Disney Pictures, does not take that castrating approach but rather offers the work in essentially complete form. It is what the show was meant to be: an exploration of how eternal truths compressed into children’s tales are just the starting point when people begin to wend their way into the woods of adult life, tracing their individual routes from paths they inherited from their parents. Notwithstanding its storybook setting peopled by Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and the rest, the show raises deep questions about expectations, disappointments, and the costs of the examined life.
The Disney studio can handle that. What it apparently finds frightening is that the piece is a musical, a point it downplays into near-extinction in its trailer, which is almost entirely limited to spoken dialogue. Make no mistake: Into the Woods is very much a musical film, practically a throughcomposed opera. Fortunately, every member of the terrific cast is capable of putting across songs and ensembles effectively. All bring subtlety and specificity to their interpretations. Meryl Streep is at the center of the action as a witch who is also an overprotective mother. Her explosive entrance sets the hurdle high, but her interpretation of this complex role never flags, reaching its powerful apex in her song “Stay With Me.” Johnny Depp gets creepy as the Wolf who salivates over Red Riding Hood, teen actress Lilla Crawford. She replaced the ten-year-old originally cast in that part to avoid uncomfortably pedophilic undertones, which may have been lessened but still remain. The movie gets full Disney treatment, filled with magical fantasy and visual energy, but I’m not sure who its market will be. At the general-audience preview I attended, some gentlemen rebelled upon realizing that their girlfriends had dragged them to (gasp!) a musical, and many children lost interest in the course of the two-plus hours. Actual grown-ups, however, should find it engrossing and enriching.
— James M. Keller