There are moments when the big-screen adaptation of the stage production “Into the Woods,” a fairytale mashup played out against a haunting score by Stephen Sondheim, is as big and broad as the giant who lives at the top of the beanstalk.
But quickly, director Rob Marshall returns to what feels like a more confined space — an illusion created by the forest that serves as the backdrop for the story — that allows for some personal and unforgettable moments to develop.
The balance makes for movie magic.
Marshall benefits from the instant familiarity of “Into the Woods.” Even if the moviegoer has never seen the stage production, the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Cinderella are joined together through the tale of a Baker (James Corden) and his wife, (Emily Blunt). They must collect four items from the noted fairytale characters to break a spell placed on their home by the Witch next door (Meryl Streep) that has left them childless.
The stories meet and move on but always feel connected by the themes of growing up, parenting and sexual awakening. Generally, these heavy plot lines don’t become too cumbersome, except with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford). The song addressed to her by the big, bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), “Hello Little Girl,” takes on a creepy tone as it’s performed here.
It’s the only musical miscue as the cast handles the edgy Sondheim musical score with great ease and passion.
Crawford is one of the youngest members of the cast, but that doesn’t keep her from stealing scenes like a master criminal. The Broadway actress not only handles the music like a seasoned veteran, she manages to give the movie some much needed levity and joy.
Anna Kendrick continues to show her broad range of skills, turning in show-stopping performances with “On the Steps of the Palace” and “You Are Not Alone.”
Streep is not known for her musical background (you can’t count the train wreck of “Mamma Mia!”), but she is such a talented performer that she gives the Witch both a wonderful wickedness and a wit. Streep doesn’t just play the movie’s foil, she provides an energetic force that keeps the turmoil swirling.
There are other fun moments, including the macho performances by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as dueling princes. The light moment stands out because the general tone of “Into the Woods” is so dark.
Adapting a stage production to the big screen is tricky. If too much of the staging is kept, the film comes across as confined and cramped. Open up the stage version too much, and the theatrical trappings are overwhelmed. Even in the darkest moments, Marshall has managed to create a film that is worthy of the production’s stage history. Sondheim’s music isn’t for those who prefer light and frothy musicals. This is a case where the lyrics are so deep and powerful they can’t fully be appreciated with one listen.
The film does have a third act that doesn’t have the flow of the rest of the film. And that Depp number kicks the production off kilter for a while. Theater purists will have to deal with a few changes made by James Lapine (who wrote the book for the stage production) in the screenplay.
Overall, “Into the Woods” is a musical journey full of strong performances, a beautiful fairytale landscape and a story that is emotionally haunting. Climb up a beanstalk to see this movie musical.