First of all, everyone in the all-star cast is so spot-on and so perfectly cast. Meryl Streep is, of course, fantastic as the Witch, totally dominating every scene she’s in. James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife, respectively, anchor the whole film together with their energetic performances—and my goodness can Blunt sing. Her performance of “Moments in the Woods” blew me away. It’s hard to think of a more perfect Cinderella than Anna Kendrick, and her rendition of “On the Steps of the Palace” is probably my favorite song of the film. Even the two youngest members of the cast, Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone as Jack, hold their own in the songs with the older cast members and really shine in their solos. And Chris Pine… my goodness, Chris Pine. His Prince Charming is as over-the-top and as ridiculous as he should be, chivalrous to a fault and a total narcissistic twit. And his version of “Agony” with Billy Magnussen’s Prince was PERFECT and easily one of my favorite scenes in a movie this year. Fans of the original won’t be complaining how a cast member ruined their favorite song in the show, because everyone in the cast is great and no one drops the ball.
I really have to commend director Rob Marshall for staying so faithful to the already fantastic original musical. Part of the allure of the source material is that we see these familiar fairy tale characters in the interstitial space between their stories: we never see Cinderella at the ball or Jack being chased by giants. And the stories we do see have a dark twist: the relationship between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, for example, takes a creepily sexual tilt in the musical. The point is that a lot of the action takes place offstage, with the bulk of what we see onstage being characters from different stories interacting with each other and impacting the consequences of their tales. And, by and large, Into the Woods sticks by that idea.
Mercifully, Into the Woods is not special-effects heavy except when it needs to be. More often than not, scenes in the film feel like a very well done stage production: not drowning in special effects or an overabundance of color correction, but rather filmed in relatively small-scale points in the woods with long camera takes. The incredibly intricate stories and songs can speak for themselves. Marshall could easily have indulged himself and taken advantage of opportunities that film as a medium presents that would be more difficult in a stage production. And he does do that, but only a few times. The vast majority of what we see onscreen could easily have been done in a stage production, and the result is a film that still feels intimate and full of heart. There’s also a surprisingly small amount cut out from the source material. There are a few changes here and there, but nothing major, and those changes mostly deal with cutting songs or certain characters to make things more streamlined and movie-friendly. A lot of the weird, dark stuff—fans of the musical will know what I’m talking about—is still there. The film still reaches the same end result, however, with all the emotional oomph as before.
Into the Woods is fantastic and it’s the way a movie musical should be: faithful to the source material, taking advantage of new opportunities the medium presents, but not overly so. Fans of the original stage musical (like myself) will be excited to see the show come to life on the big screen, and newcomers will find plenty to enjoy, too.