I must admit I approached this having only just survived Les Miserables a couple of years ago. As a result I feared the worst – not helped by the fact that the critics had not exactly been swooning over it. But these are film critics with a healthy disdain for other forms of entertainment such as theatre, and most especially musical theatre. The Sondheim purists have also had the knives out, but, hey, that’s like being harangued by a group of trainspotters.
The best advice I can give is; if you don’t like musical theatre stay well away. And if you’re a Musical Theatre purist you may have a few hackles up. All I can say to you is “get over it.”
If, like me, you love great musical theatre and great performances (on the whole) this will fill your heart with joy.
It’s no ordinary Disney movie either – a bit more adult themed and certainly no vacuous Little Mermaid fodder – but, nevertheless, it’s glorious entertainment from start to finish. (That said, the younger children in the audience became a bit restless.)
The two most obvious comparisons are Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, starring Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. That’s a fine film, albeit neither Depp nor HBC are real singers.
The other is the aforementioned, ludicrously awful, Les Miserables. That film should have been put behind bars and the keys thrown away for crimes against music.
On both fronts Into The Woods walks away with all the prizes.
It’s a glorious romp, pulling together the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood into a completely new construct that pulls together the threads of what stands for goodness and badness in the land of fairy tale.
Wrapping it all together is the quest that a Baker (James Cordon; solid) and his wife (Emily Blunt; outstanding) go on at the behest of their neighbour, a witch, played show-stealingly by Meryl Streep. Depp’s cameo as the Wolf is passable.
The story cracks along at a furious pace for around an hour but slows somewhat in Act 2, nevertheless it’s an engaging and heartwarming tale underpinned by Sondheim’s astonishing score and hilarious and very clever lyrics. It’s given great respect and delivered extremely well throughout by a great ensemble cast.
Another show stealer is the Princes’ performance of ‘Agony’ that’s hilariously OTT, as it should be. And Frances De La Tour as the Giant’s wife raises many a chuckle.
It’s not absolutely true to the stage play (Disney sensitivities has softened some of its more adult themes) but Sondheim was engaged to write around this and the result does not spoil the story – although purists will argue this point.
In all, it’s not as challenging as the stage production and it seems to be undecided as to who its audience is – it’s quite surprising that Disney bought the rites given the above.
That said it’s a hugely enjoying distraction and two hours of wonderful escapism.