"Careful the tale you tell ... Children will listen." The 1987 Broadway musical "Into the Woods" -- with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim ("Sweeney Todd") and book by James Lapine -- appears, on the surface, to be a postmodern consideration of fairy tales and what kids derive from them. But "Into the Woods" is a far more multilayered work than that, and I'm happy to report that Walt Disney Pictures and director Rob Marshall ("Chicago") haven't broken it with their cinematic adaptation.
"So into the woods you go again,/You have to every now and then./Into the woods, no telling when,/Be ready for the journey." If the greatest works of art are those that tackle the journey of life itself, "Into the Woods" is among them. Its characters' venture into the woods in pursuit of their wishes, revealing it to be a place of Jungian shadows. Many of the characters are drawn from various Grimm fairy tales -- bean-buying Jack (Daniel Huttlestone of "Les Miserables") and his mother (Tracey Ullmann), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) -- but the play adds a Baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt) and a Witch (Meryl Streep) who promises them a child in exchange for their help.
"Careful the wish you make/Wishes are children/Careful the path they take/Wishes come true, not free." Conflicting desires, the fallout therein, and the terrifying responsibilities and fears of parenting all come into play as secrets and crises emerge. The story's "happily ever after" first act, childish and innocent, yields to a disturbing second act of tough adult truths, among them disappointment, death, war and infidelity.
The play has been trimmed, ostensibly by screenwriter Lapine, mostly judiciously and rarely recklessly (though the foolish hack job done to the play's "Finale" is close to criminal). The production's most valuable player is music supervisor and conductor Paul Gemignani, the (highly skilled) Sondheim vet who performed the same honors for Tim Burton's film of "Sweeney Todd," but the film is also exceptionally well cast, with top honors going to Streep, Blunt (who sticks the landing of "Moments in the Woods"), Corden, and juvenile performers Crawford and Huttlestone.
Though any film adaptation of a classic musical is bound to be a mixed bag, Sondheim fans have pulled off an impressive transplant, one that retains the play's complicated moral character along with most of its music. "Wrong things, right things ... /Who can say what's true? ... /Do things, fight things ... /You decide, but ... /You are not alone ... /Witches can be right. Giants can be good./You decide what's right. You decide what's good."
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material. Two hours, 4 minutes.