You can’t please everyone, but Rob Marshall’s reinvention of the Stephen Sondheim fairytale-mashup musical is just what the doctor ordered if you seek late-December escapism: catchy songs, blandly reassuring plot points, decent visuals and Meryl Streep as a witch in a wig. It’s no “Chicago,” but “Into the Woods” should satisfy (or, at least, shouldn’t piss off) Sondheim fans, who were spoiled by Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd” in 2007.
If we can all take off our Streep blinders for a moment, the rest of the musical-savvy cast is also strong. Emily Blunt is especially striking as the Baker’s Wife, bringing bouncy comedy to this otherwise thankless role; Anna Kendrick is as overly earnest as ever as the ragamuffin Cinderella; and Johnny Depp as The Wolf gets in and out of the way before becoming annoying.
While the trades have stamped the film with approval—it’s likely to nab SAG and Globe nominee Meryl Streep a Supporting Actress Oscar nom—Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson isn’t so in love. Here’s what the critics have to say so far. Disney opens this witchy brew of madness on December 25.
The Hollywood Reporter: Streep is quite wonderful, delivering something far richer than her karaoke turn in the clunky “Mamma Mia!” Her performances in the film adaptations of stage hits “Doubt” and “August: Osage County” are among her less remarkable work of recent years. But she reinvents this role from scratch, bringing powerful vocals, mischievous comedic instincts, bold physicality and raw feeling to the Witch. Her entrances and exits alone are priceless.
Screen Daily: The star of this adaptation, however, is Sondheim’s score. From the brilliant extended opening number, which adroitly introduces the central characters and their separate quests, Into The Woods features a bevy of rich, evocative tunes with lyrics that economically push the story forward, even throwing out a joke now or then. The original musical managed to be both heartfelt and sardonic, mocking the innocence of fairy tales while, simultaneously, explaining why we still value such totemic stories. And in this film version, numbers such as “Agony,” “Stay With Me,” “On The Steps Of The Palace,” “Any Moment” and “Moments In The Woods” have lost none of their potency, provoking laughs or sad stirrings depending on the particular tune. The fine-voiced cast belt out the songs with gusto, even if some of the emotional shading gets lost in translation.
Variety: “Woods”… has no major dances to flash-cut into incoherence. And where both “Chicago” and “Nine” labored to present their musical numbers as fantasy sequences, lest multiplex goers be alarmed by the sight of actors suddenly bursting into song, “Woods” harbors no such concerns, embracing its theatricality down to the smallest details of costume and set design…We’re a long — and probably wise — way here from the bigger-budget version of the film originally proposed, complete with elaborate creature effects from the Jim Henson workshop. The movie doesn’t need the extra razzle-dazzle because the real magic is there in Sondheim’s music, which Marshall allows to come through mostly unimpeded (save for a few deleted reprises), in Jonathan Tunick’s marvelous original orchestrations and conducted by longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani.
The Wrap: Overall, however, “Into the Woods” does justice to the extraordinary source material, and it allows its seasoned ensemble (which also includes Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard as Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters) the chance to dig into the memorable songs and the clever wordplay. It might not be everything that fans had wished for over the years, but as both Sondheim and Mick Jagger have taught us, you can’t always get what you want.
Vanity Fair: Marshall has made a technically assured film that does the difficult work of taking Sondheim’s tricky music out of its original context. But it rarely feels imaginative. It’s cautious and reserved, cramped where the stage show, when done right (and, honestly, even when not done right), is expansive. After all this is a show that’s all about life, the experience of being alive, the lessons and trials and journeys and setbacks. All that elemental, universal stuff, shrewdly molded into tweaks of familiar fairy tales. It’s an ingenious show, and a profound one. But in film form, in this particular film form anyway, the story is small and inert, it’s too specifically about these people, when really the show is supposed to be about all of us.