"Be careful what you wish for" is not only the tagline for the screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods – it's solid advice for viewers, too, because if you're wishing for a masterpiece on par with director Rob Marshall's Chicago or an experience that rivals a Broadway show, you'll be disappointed. But if you enter with reasonable expectations, you should be satisfied with this delightful, if slightly uneven, visual feast and its ability to capture most of the magic and originality of the stage musical.
Sondheim's music and lyrics (with the book and subsequent screenplay by James Lapine) debuted on stage in 1986 as both a witty combination of classic Grimm fairy tales and a clever commentary on what really happens after "happily ever after." The stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack and the beanstalk – with some twists – are included, linked by a fifth tale of a poor baker and his wife who must perform a series of tasks involving those aforementioned characters in order to convince an unfriendly neighborhood witch to lift a curse that has left the couple childless.
As expected, the movie makes changes to the original musical. Events are condensed, the transition between acts is altered, songs are axed and characters are cut. (Goodbye to the narrator, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.) The plot is also a bit less grim and adult-oriented, with no sexual tension between the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red, and a much happier ending for one character. But none of these changes dishonors Sondheim, and some actually improve the film's flow.
The cast is strong in both acting and singing, led by Meryl Streep as the Witch, Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife, James Corden as the Baker, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Chris Pine as the deliciously campy Prince and Tracey Ullman as Jack's mother. Even the supporting players are memorable, with a wonderful-as-always Lucy Punch as one of Cinderella's evil stepsisters and an especially weird – even by his standards – Johnny Depp as the Wolf. They are all aided by a splendid production design that transports us to a fairy-tale world more successfully than the Broadway show can.
The first half is a joy and whizzes by more quickly than Rapunzel can let down her hair. But the unevenness and slower, stranger plot of the second half reveal both the difficulties of the stage-to-screen process and the musical's inherent weaknesses. While Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist, his music here – though innovative – often smacks of notes thrown at the page, lacking in melodic sensibility or emotional impact. Those flaws are masked in the early going by the show's sheer wonder, but by the two-hour mark, the bloom is slightly off the rose – to throw yet another fairy-tale metaphor into the mix.
When trying to buy Jack's cow with beans, the Baker says they have a "magic that defies description." Into the Woods – both musical and movie – is clearly less wondrous than those beanstalk-growing legumes, but Marshall's movie deserves credit for capturing almost all of the musical's magic while presenting a visual spectacle that a proscenium is unable to unveil.