My father's house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something in between.

My father’s house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something in between.

Many of us grew up being told the same stories. These adventures often revolved around people like us at our most vulnerable – the frightened, the lonely, the unfairly punished. Often, what we took from these stories was the way in which great things could happen to seemingly small people. Every time a story ended, we felt that it might just be possible to rise above our limits and become warriors, royalty, travellers, and adventurers.

What we never counted on is that all of spirited souls would still be left restless when they got what their hearts desired.

INTO THE WOODS is a musical that lives at the intersection of four other stories. We’ll begin with the ones you know.

In one corner is Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) lives with his mother (Tracey Ullman) in squalor. With their cow no longer producing milk, Jack’s mother forces him to take the beast to market and sell it. He comes home with magic beans.

In another corner is Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). She never seems to have enough money to buy food, but still walks away with plenty thanks to the kindness of strangers. She’s making her way to her Granny’s house.

In a third corner is Cinderella (Anna Kendrick). Left on her own in this bleak world when her mother passed away, she is now left to commune with her parent at the foot of the willow tree where her mother is buried. When she learns that The Prince (Chris Pine) is throwing a ball, she longs to go, but her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski) quashes the idea in its tracks. Thanks to some magical happening at her mother’s willow, Cinderella rocks a killer outfit and goes to her ball after all. Problem is, she never seems to want to stay there. Every night at the stroke of twelve, she makes a break for it.

In the final corner is a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt). They are tasked by a Wicked Witch (Meryl Streep) to help her undo a curse – a curse that is preventing them from having children. To undo the curse, they will need to collect certain tokens from the woods and bring them back before the third night is over. This quest finds them rescuing Hood from a Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), buying Jack’s cow in exchange for the aforementioned beans, and chasing after Cinderella in the off-chance she can spare a shoe.

However, what every character soon learns is that life isn’t quite like a fairy tale…and getting what you want doesn’t mean you won’t still be left wanting.

 

Emily Blunt and James Corden

 

INTO THE WOODS is a great musical, and a good movie. I feel like saying that up front because I fear this piece will become riddled with a lot of “ifs” and “buts”, and I don’t want any amount of either to take away from that ultimate point. For instance, while I believe that INTO THE WOODS is a great musical and a good movie, I don’t believe that it will convert anyone to The Church of Broadway. It is prototypical of great musical theatre, and in order to convert the non-believers, material is needed that rises above that. A skeptical audience needs a tangible story, a few grounded leads, and perhaps a song that they could conceivably turn up in their car.

INTO THE WOODS has none of those. That’s not a flaw, it just is what it is.

The show is a seminal work by Broadway genius Stephen Sondheim, and typical of his work in the way that it’s deeply operatic. The music in his shows feels less designed to serve as plot punctuation than it does to tell the plot. As such, the music creates a current for the story to sail upon, and while they feel stunning in-the-moment, they feel hard to recall the moment the song ends (again – not a flaw). So, if you’re the sort who wants storystorystorySONG! storystorystorySONG!, then you might find this isn’t the show or film for you.

However, if you are the sort who wants to set sail on the current, and let these characters row you down the river, then great things abound. The film pushes out the walls of every staged version that has come before it, and truly allows the wonder and beauty of this land far, far away to unfurl. Its mists, its lushness, its darkness, and its wonder are moved through unencumbered while the talented cast assembled moves through it with anguish, fear and awe. Sometimes things get a little kooky – mostly when Meryl Streep’s Witch or Johnny Depp’s Wolf are around – but most of the time, the acting, music , and look of this film combine to embody our deepest hesitations. What’s more, it plays off those trepidations well when it drops in beacons of hope like Rapunzel’s hair, or Red Riding’s cloak.

Things in this film”pop” in a way that’s difficult to achieve on a broadway stage, since a stage needs to stay so much brighter. The use of this trick demonstrates that the film version fully understands the differences between the two media.

From the ground-up, INTO THE WOODS seems hellbent on making its mark with this adaptation. It has chosen its moment carefully, deciding to sit-out the early-century onslaught of movie musicals. That early glut of material found Broadway hits like PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE PRODUCERS left for dead. Through its patience, the film stands a chance of capitalizing on recent retellings of other fairy tales in the movies and on TV. What’s more, the film has paid special attention to casting and delivered a product without a single poor singer. Adapting a musical is a risky proposition, and Hollywood usually only gets one shot at a property. In this case, it has aimed its shot carefully.

Perhaps the best takeaway from INTO THE WOODS – besides its stunning visuals – is the core theme of the story itself. The best children’s stories have very adult themes – valuable lessons in courage, honour, and consequences. The theme this story wants us to remember is that even though we grow-up, we never stop making mistakes or bad decisions. That as much as we want to believe we “grow out” of our fears and insecurities, the truth is that we just bury them down a little deeper, but not so deep that they can’t easily be unearthed. When we do, we’re not only doing ourselves a disservice, but also those we love who have come to depend on us. It’s a common flaw – grown-ups doing not-so-grown-up things – and one that comes from fear of the darkness of our own personal woods.

But to paraphrase the titular song, we should have no fear, Nor no one should; The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood

 

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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