Oh look, they made a movie based on the TV show Once Upon A Time
“Into the Woods” is an adaptation of the classic Stephen Sondheim musical brought to the big screen by the folks at Disney. It combines several fairy tales from the brother’s Grimm into a musical exploration of not just these fictional characters but what can happen when each of us venture into the woods in our own lives. Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and his Beanstalk, and more sing their way through the woods with a witch, played by the always notable Meryl Streep, directing their moves for her own purpose. And speaking of Meryl, lets just start there. She’s astounding.
Not that that should be a surprise by now, but somehow she manages again to put in an Oscar worthy performance turning notes and lines into her playthings as she manipulates the audience on screen and off to her whims. It’s truly brilliant to watch. But here’s the thing, I think the rest of the cast do a great job at keeping up with her. Anna Kendrick is wonderful as Cinderella, Chris Pine is perfectly placed as prince charming, and James Cordon and Emily Blunt are captivating as the baker and his wife who play the central role in bringing these stories together. And that’s not even to mention Johnny Depp who steps in for a bit to play the wolf in only the way Depp ever could. The talent of this group gives the story a fullness of drama and humor that makes for a wonderful journey. Speaking of humor, the laughs here come often, and are another key reason the experience works so well, with some genuinely clever wordplay and phrasing in these captivating songs. I also love that the story takes place for the most part in the between times of these known stories. It gives it an almost behind the scenes feel, as if this stuff could have come from a VH1 special of “Behind the Fairy Tales”. It such a smart move and makes these old stories feel fresh in a way you wouldn’t think the could and probably one of the main reason this musical has endured for almost 30 years. Of course another reason could be these amazing songs. They are fun, meaningful, and singable in a way that few musicals get completely right and it’s a soundtrack that I’m sure I’ll be pumping on my Spotify quite a bit in the future.
But that does lead me to the one issue I had with the movie. I kinda wanted the songs sung live in the movie. It’s occasionally obvious that the actors are syncing to a studio recorded track, which is fine and all, and I understand that’s usually the way it’s done, but can be a bit distracting. Maybe Les Mis just spoiled me, but the power that can come with performing and acting at the same time, though risky, can pay huge emotional dividends. But really it’s a minor thing that many may not even notice.
When all is said and done, Into the Woods is a wonderful experience. Some masterful performances, clever humor, and fresh perspective on these classic stories make for captivating journey. Even if you can tell the songs weren’t recorded live they are still beautiful and performed expertly and will have me singing along for months to come. I say this movie comes out of the woods with a well deserved A.