Based on music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Into The Woods provides all the darkness, comedy, and folkloric foolery as in the writer’s previously adapted musical, Sweeney Todd. Yet, whilst the fairytale realm to which the woods belong is just as vividly realised as Tim Burton’s Victorian London, the experience isn’t wholly comparable.
Once upon a time, James Corden’s baker narrates, there were five characters torn from the pages of traditional fairytales, only to be placed on converging paths by Meryl Streep’s superbly wicked Witch. Those of you expecting Streep’s to be the stand-out performance, however, might be surprised by an outright funny, charming and, Golden Globe nominated turn from Emily Blunt. To top it off, she also proves to be a fantastic singer, delivering her lines with an assurance and humour that is brilliant to watch.
As with Sweeney Todd, Sondheim’s lyrics are at their best when they subvert typical musical fare. One-liners serve to undercut the pomposity of the genre as everything that you might expect to hate in a ‘Disney musical’ is recognised and riffed-upon in the songs. The best example of this comes as Prince Charming (Chris Pine) and Rapunzel’s suitor (Billy Magnusson) throw themselves to their knees and tear their shirts atop a flowing waterfall. “Agony far more painful than yours”, Rapunzel’s prince laments as he initiates a game of one-upmanship that takes aim at the cocky, self-assured stereotypes of masculinity presented in most Disney fairytales. As Pine reminds us, these are characters “raised to be charming, not sincere.”
Ultimately, however, the film’s narrative is never quite subversive enough, reminding us frequently that “children listen.” As a result, the baker’s wife is severely reprimanded for kissing the prince (at least in Corden’s retelling of the story), and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) dares to dream before accepting a life more grounded, confessing that she “sometimes like cleaning.”
The final element to mention would be the striking visual effects work captured by Rob Marshall’s camera; Jack’s towering beanstalk, Cinderella’s gloomy willow tree and Johnny Depp’s big teeth (which are, of course, all the better to eat you with) are all impressively realised. It’s an enjoyable journey, but not one this reviewer will be eager to take again too soon. Now where’s that soundtrack…
Into The Woods opens in cinemas on January 9