It’s tricky to translate musicals onto the big screen for a modern audience, which is why we rarely see them at the local cineplex. Les Miserables was an exception and surprised a lot of people with its strong box office performance, but it’s hard to think about another recent live action musical that was worth watching.
Following its previous hit, the Disney musical Into the Woods is unsurprisingly similar to Les Miserables with its superb sets and star-studded cast. The biggest difference is that Into the Woods has a sly, twisted sense of humor about its source material that proves a great addition, turning this into one of the most delightful films of the year.
The story revolves around a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child but cannot conceive. They learn from the neighborhood evil witch (Meryl Streep) that he’s actually cursed to remain childless, the end of his family line, but if they can collect a set of magical totems by the next full moon that the witch can lift the curse. Maybe.
Interwoven into the story is the hapless Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) of beanstalk fame, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and even an amusingly vain Prince Charming (Chris Pine).
You know the stories. Jack sells a cow to get magic beans, which grow into a massive beanstalk that he climbs to find treasure. Little Red Riding Hood stops by the baker to get treats for Granny in the woods, then encounters a strange and alarming Wolf (Johnny Depp) en route. She also bumps into Cinderella running away from the castle, pursued by Prince Charming and his brother, another prince (Billy Magnussen) who only has eyes for Rapunzel, who has to let down her golden hair because she’s trapped in a tower deep in the woods.
But Rapunzel is secretly the daughter of, well, no spoilers, but not only does director Rob Marshall have a wicked sense of humor throughout the movie and its songs, but he and writer James Lapine have done a brilliant job of weaving all the Grimm fairy tales together in a way that makes a surprising amount of sense. It makes for a film that has its share of delightful “WTF?” moments and some laugh out loud lyrics.
The sets, the exteriors, the visual effects, and the costumes are all very well done, creating a film that’s just terrific on the big screen, lush, colorful and moody, ominous when needed and whimsical at other moments. And unlike Les Miserables, there are no performers in Into the Woods who do a poor job with their singing, and many that have surprisingly pleasant voices. Indeed, some of the numbers, notably the duet between the two princes as they cavort in a river, are terrific.
The only dark mark in the entire film is Johnny Depp, who is cast as the wolf but plays Johnny Depp. His foppish, melodramatic overacting was terrific in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but since then he’s delivered that same performance in movie after movie and it’s made him one of the most overrated actors in Hollywood. Fortunately, his on-screen time is short and easily overlooked.
I watched this film with four teenagers, figuring they would be the toughest demographic and none of them enjoyed the movie as much as I did. The 14yo boy walked away half-way through, saying he thought it was stupid. The other three (two 18yo girls, a 15yo boy) stuck it out but were decidedly mixed on their assessment afterwards.
By contrast, I really enjoyed Into the Woods quite a bit, particularly once I recognized the sly undercurrent of humor — sometimes rather dark humor — throughout, and recommend it as one of the best family movies of the year. It’s great fun.