"Into the Woods," the deliciously arch, deceptively deep, fractured fairy tale with its soaring Sondheim showstoppers, has made it to the big screen virtually untouched by Hollywood's big, tall, terrible giants, whose meddling can so often make a mess of things.
As you'd expect, the woods have been partially repopulated by movie stars — Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp among them — who, thankfully, can actually sing.
Director Rob Marshall, who did a pretty swell job of bringing the "Pop! Six! Squish! Uh Uh!" of "Chicago" to film, wraps all of his love for Broadway musicals around his cast, pulling out performances that have already drawn awards nominations for Streep and Blunt.
The other major roles are filled by actors who have spent their share of time doing musical theater, in addition to their film and TV work. Among them are Tony winners Christine Baranski and James Corden, Tony-nominated Billy Magnussen and the young stage veterans Lilla Crawford, who starred as "Annie" on Broadway, and Daniel Huttlestone, whose credits include "Oliver!" and "Les Misérables," both in London.
I suspect James Lapine eased the transition from stage to screen. He won a Tony for the droll wit of the musical's book in the first place and took on screenplay duties for the film, ensuring that the way his words intertwined so tightly with Stephen Sondheim's Tony-winning music and lyrics on stage would remain intact.
While Marshall has taken care to not break the musical's magical spell, he hasn't materially changed it either. So if you are expecting an experience that feels as if it could happen only in the movies, the director's way through the "Woods" won't take you there.
The special effects are like showy accessories, fun but not fundamental, though the witch's comings and goings are a smoky, spooky blast. The overall look of the film is lush and storybook-like, with a lovely painterly touch and soft rich hues, heavy on the blues, that matches its sometimes-introspective mood.
Shooting on location does give the story visual depth. The trees, leaves and streams are beautifully real, as is the quaint village at the edge of the woods. England's countryside, villages and castles provide much of the raw material, all well used by director of photography Dion Beebe and production designer Dennis Gassner. John DeLuca proves facile in staging the musical numbers around all those rocks and trees; David Krane is respectful in adapting the score. Peter Swords King's work on makeup and tresses is top notch, with a special shout out to J. Roy Helland, who handled the witch's.
But what makes "Into the Woods" so entertaining is the cleverness of the tale itself and the way specific characters match the talents of its storytellers. A strong ensemble was assembled by those involved in casting — Francine Maisler, Bernard Telsey and Tiffany Little Canfield.
The foundation of the story begs, borrows and steals liberally from many favorite fairy tales: Cinderella (Kendrick) with her lost slipper, Prince Charming (Pine) searching to find her, the wicked stepmother (Baranski) and her daughters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) in the way. Kendrick, Pine and Baranski all pitch-perfect, including their comic timing.
Then there's Red Riding Hood (Crawford) and her fated trip into the woods to visit an ailing Granny (Annette Crosbie) with the hungry Wolf (Depp) lurking. Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), locked in her tower, throws down that long golden braid to her prince (Magnussen), and others who do not wish her as well. Young Jack (Huttlestone) still trades in his cow for magic beans, enraging his mother (Tracey Ullman) and enraging a giant (Frances De La Tour) more.
All important to stitch the tales together is the Baker (Corden) and his barren wife (Blunt), whose efforts to break the witch's curse so they may have a child require a great many trips into the woods to find, as the witch requires, "a cow as white as milk [Jack's], a cape as red as blood [Red's], hair as yellow as corn [Rapunzel's] and a slipper as pure as gold [Cinderella's]."
Not surprisingly, the witch is key. In Streep's good hands she crackles with rage, resentment and revenge, but she also has a wicked sense of humor and never, ever forgets this is a fable.
Though all the performances are, like the prince, charming, Blunt as the Baker's wife is particularly good as a young wife trying to sort out her role in this life. The actress effortlessly moves through so many moods, it's as if her charisma is carried on the wind.
The film's youngsters are both great. Crawford makes a mischievous Red Riding Hood's munching and musing such fun. Huttlestone as the not-too-bright Jack delivers "Giants in the Sky" so well that of all the songs in the film, it's the one that keeps playing in my head.
In starting with fairy tales, Lapine and Sondheim were already dealing with layered stories. But in using the woods as the central intersection, there are any number of other ideas in play, other morals. Some serious, like those about parenthood — will the Baker be a fit father? Or whether the prince Cinderella wished for is really who she wants.
If anything, some of the darker themes are heightened. Cutting toes to make a slipper fit, the blood dripping; blinding both the bad and the good in revenge, a banishment, a death — may be too much for some little ones.