The audience for “Into the Woods” will likely be divided into two unequal portions. On one side will be the Sondheim fanatics (fair warning: I’m one) and people who’ve seen a stage production of the show, legit, community, or high school. On the other will be the vast majority who will head into this expecting the latest Johnny Depp movie and experience severe karmic distress when people open their mouths and start singing. Both groups probably need to adjust their expectations.
The fanatics will find plenty of nits to pick, but it’s a fair-to-fine film adaptation of a Sondheim musical, which already puts it near the front of a very small pack, after Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” perhaps, but ahead of the dire 1977 “A Little Night Music.” (“West Side Story,” to which Sondheim contributed the lyrics, is in a class of it’s own.) Directed by Rob Marshall, who won an Oscar for turning “Chicago” into a barrage of flailing limbs, “Into the Woods” is forced in some places but exquisitely right in others, and it gains strength as it goes.
Will the uninitiated have a moment’s panic when the story’s many fairy-tale plot strands are resolved at the 80-minute mark with an entire second act to come? Well, that’s the genius of the thing. With a book by James Lapine (who wrote the screenplay) and twisty yet tuneful music and lyrics by Sondheim, the first half of “Into the Woods” is a playful genetic recombination of several of our most treasured childhood myths. There’s Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) pining at the fireplace while her Wicked Stepmother (Christine Baranski, who else?) keeps her from the ball held by the Prince (Chris Pine). Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) sells the family cow for a handful of beans, to the anger of his mother (Tracey Ullman); beanstalks and giants ensue.
Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) heads to Granny’s house only to be intercepted by the Big Bad Wolf (Depp, who’s only on hand for 1½ scenes and doesn’t make much of an impression). Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is stuck up that tower with a witch for a mother (Meryl Streep). And — the only new tale in this gallery of golden oldies — a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) try to lift the witch’s curse so they can have a child.
The first section of the film sends these characters into an enchanted forest, where they careen off each other with wit, neuroses, and not a little awkwardness. Marshall, true to form, doesn’t direct so much as overdirect; I’m not sure the camera needs to be moving so constantly when the characters are. We also discover who’s up to the task of negotiating Sondheim’s devilishly tricky lyrics (Jack’s mother, re: the cow: “We’ve no time to sit and dither/While her withers wither with her”) and who has the voices to put them over.
Kendrick does, but anyone who saw her slay Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” in her first film, 2003’s “Camp,” knows that. (She’ll prove it again, in spades, when “The Last Five Years” comes to theaters next year; it’s possible the actress may turn out be the great musical hope of her generation.) So, to your possible surprise, do Chris Pine and Emily Blunt. The former turns the show’s finest comic number, “Agony” (a duo sung with Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince), into a delicious display of entitled stud sensitivity. (It’s a shame, though, that the film cuts the song’s second-act reprise, where we learn about princely dwarf phobias.)
The baker’s wife is the heart of the play — Joanna Gleason won a leading actress Tony for the original production back in 1988 — and Blunt is up to the challenge. The story’s second half is considerably darker than the first, with an attack by an unhappy giant’s wife (Frances de la Tour) who’s a stand-in for the disasters that can befall us at any moment. It’s only after Happily Ever After that the characters are able to measure their true strengths and frailties, and Blunt makes her character’s dilemma, loving her husband but drawn to the caddish Prince, a genuinely touching (if PG-rated) struggle between “And” and “Or.”
In fact, she and Kendrick outshine Streep, who hams it up enjoyably in the first-act “Witch’s Rap” and makes “Stay With Me” a keening mother’s lament for a growing child but who just doesn’t have the pipes to make “The Last Midnight” the second-half showstopper it’s meant to be. Part of that is Marshall’s fault, since the number is directed with such whomping special-effects overkill that Streep’s voice and the song’s impact are all but swallowed up.
Crawford’s Red Riding Hood is more of a little pill than she needs to be, but Huttlestone is likably stalwart as Jack, and as the baker, Corden makes a sweet schmo of a helpmate for Blunt; the two have a duet, “It Takes Two,” that’s corny and adorable in just the right balance. And in the second half, when the characters confront losses that resound outside the fairy-tale framework, the baker’s endurance — the resilience of the common man — cuts deeper than any of the high-spirited Broadway busking that has preceded it.
If you want “Into the Woods” as it was first envisioned, scout up the DVD of the original Broadway production with Gleason and, as the witch, a triumphant Bernadette Peters. And hope that someone in Hollywood has the nerve to film more Sondheim. (“Assassins”? Not likely, but one can wish.) For now, Marshall’s film captures enough of the emotions that course through this sneaky fairy tale about childish things like love, sex, grief, insecurity, abandonment, and forbearance. “Children will listen,” goes a chorus from the film. You probably should, too.