Gene Kelly was once asked why musicals were no longer a staple of modern movies and he said something to the effect that “no one knows how to make them anymore.” (This was a short time after he appeared in Xanadu. Today, only a precious few know how to do it: the producers and director of Into the Woods.
This is as close as any contemporary movie has come to making a musical that most audiences can see—the caveat being that Into the Woods is a mature twist on fairy tale characters and not for the purist or the very young. Disney toned down the sequences with Red Riding Hood and the Wolf as well as the Baker’s Wife and Prince Charming to the point that things are very obtuse.
That all said, Into the Woods has a lot of comedy, one of Sondheim’s most melodic scores and a brisk pace (kudos to director Rob Marshall for that). And to be fair to the subject matter, one can watch the network series Once Upon a Time and see the evil Queen pulling hearts out of her victims and a naked-under-the-sheets Show White and Prince Charming interrupted in the middle of, as my dad used to call it, “spoo-ja-doo,” only to exuberantly resume after their company leaves.
A lot of attention has been awarded to the biggest stars of the film, so let’s focus on others who also deliver remarkable performances—no mean feat in a musical film, especially one with the challenging music and lyric structure of Sondheim.
James Corden is the emotional center of the film and the character with whom the audience most connects; Christine Baranski makes every syllable and gesture count as always as one of the big screen’s best evil Stepmothers and Tracey Ullmann brings superb comic timing to a somewhat thankless role (she and Baranski could have played any number of roles in this musical). As one of the stepsisters, the astonishing Tammy Blanchard makes one forget she also played Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland. Even Hagrid’s girlfriend turns up as the Giant’s Wife.
Once again, a modestly-budgeted movie proves that less money and tight time frames (and less indulegence) can result in fine, profitable films. The art direction and costuming has a painterly quality, very much as if it came from an Arthur Rackham book.
What Into the Woods is not is cozy and comfy. Yes, there are songs like “No One is Alone” that offer solace and reassurance, it’s almost an anti-fairy tale in the familiar sense (the original fairy tales were quite dark). Many, many messages flow out of the lyrics: “Life can be unpleasant you should know,” “I’m not good, I’m not nice, I’m just right” and “Nice doesn’t always mean good.”
The Blu-ray contains an audio commentary (thank you!) and several interesting behind-the-scenes vignettes, making this a fine package, especially when combined with the deluxe edition of the soundtrack (with all the songs and music).