Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Tony-winning 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods is dark, glittering stuff, an entertainingly weird mashup of Freud, Bettelheim, Edward Albee, Pirandello and the brothers Grimm — set to some of the wittiest, most bitter and tongue-twisting lyrics ever written for the stage. The composer-lyricist and librettist set their tale as far from Happily Ever After-ville as possible, in a universe in which Cinderella’s magical bird-helpers peck out her wicked abuser’s eyes, the pre-adolescent Little Red Riding Hood finds sexy-queasy thrills from being seduced by the wolf, and beanstalk-climbing Jack earns his independence and gets vicarious Oedipal excitement from a scary, big-breasted female giant.
At the simplest level, the anything but simple Into the Woods is structured as a quest centered around a hardscrabble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) cursed by a witch (Meryl Streep) to childlessness — a situation only to be remedied if they leave their comfort zone and bring the witch a red cape, a golden slipper, a white cow, and a lock of golden hair. Along the twisty route, the fairy tale archetypes keep bumping into each other with the precision of a Marx brothers farce but with a mighty emotional undertow.
The show’s implicit moral – be careful, no beware, what you wish for – and its Act Two shift into darkness consigned the subversive Into the Woods to decades of development hell before landing on the big screen. The good news is that, even bankrolled by Disney and under the direction of Rob Marshal (Chicago, Nine) who adapted Lapine’s screenplay, the original material’s sourball tang and body count survive nearly intact.
The real standouts in the cast, the ones who show themselves deft and fearless on mercilessly treacherous ground, aren’t necessarily the expected ones. Emily Blunt, for instance, provides the movie’s emotional heartbeat and guts her way through a couple of Sondheim’s best (“Moments In the Woods” and “It Takes Two”) with smarts, grace and wit. Chris Pine plays as an impossibly vain, thoroughly insincere horndog of a prince, earns the biggest, heartiest laughs in the movie and warbles “Agony” (with rival prince Billy Magnussen, who replaced Jake Gyllenhaal) like a showman. Pine, dripping with Shatner-isms, self-spoofs but still comes up aces. Anna Kendrick, too, sings up a soprano storm as Cinderella while James Corden and Tracy Ullmann (as Jack’s world-weary mother) are so good, you wish they had even more to do.
Speaking of wishes, the movie may not deliver every Sondheim fanatic’s hopes for a perfect cinematic Into the Woods but it makes for at least a respectable, if not remarkable night at the movies. ***