Listen to the review by Dennis Morton above, and read it below.
I had neither seen nor heard of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into The Woods, before I watched the film version of it. And I wasn’t terribly keen on watching the film, either, but my companion cajoled me into it. I am so grateful she did, because I haven’t enjoyed myself at the movies this much in a long time, not withstanding an uncomfortable moment when Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf character envisions a deplorable act with Little Red Riding Hood.
Into The Woods combines three of my favorite arts: music, poetry, and, of course, the movies. And it does so with a magic touch. The film cleverly blends four well known fairy tales with a sprinkling of the ‘David and Goliath’ myth.
James Lapine’s script manages to shuffle and mingle the themes of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and, Jack and The Beanstalk. Sondheim’s music is a delight and his lyrics are a work of genius – pure poetry.
The film opens with a scene in a bakery. A child, who appears to be a year or so shy of puberty, is attempting to talk the baker out of a basketful of sweetbreads. She claims she’s been sent by her mother to get the goodies for her grandmother, who lives in the woods. The baker is skeptical.
His wife, however, is sympathetic to the child. The child, by the way, is dressed in a red cape. With the wife’s subtle encouragement, the child grabs what she can and dashes into the woods.
Then, before you can say ‘shazam’, a witch, who just happens to live next to the bakery, crashes, in a whirlwind, through the front door. It turns out that quite sometime ago the witch had placed a curse upon the baker and his wife. For an offense committed by the baker’s father, many years ago, his progeny would remain forever barren. However, as the witch explains, she would consent to remove the curse if the baker would gather for her four items – to wit: a red cape, a cow white as milk, a hank of hair as yellow as corn, and, a golden slipper.
Thus it is into the woods the baker and his missus must go. They’ve seen a red cape only moments ago. And surely, a white cow ought not be too difficult to find.
We get the idea. The remainder of the film will be variations on search and find, or find and lose and search again. A young boy named Jack will part with his pet cow and try to find a way to get her back. A nubile young woman named Cinderella will find herself in a pair of golden slippers, and a certain Ms Rapunzel will end up shorn. I won’t tell you about the giants and the magic beans, or the Prince and his infidelities.
At least half of these stories are sung. The lyrics are stunningly brilliant, and in spite of an untimely death here and there, most of the folks in these merged fairy tales seem headed for better days.
The performances are fine, some even endearing. I especially liked Lilla Crawford’s portrait of Little Red Riding Hood, a precocious and slightly selfish girl.
Into The Woods is on my shortlist of the year’s best movies. If, like me, you were inclined to pass this one by, I urge you to change your mind. I’m surely glad I did.