Once upon a time, there was a magic land. Little Red Riding Hood lived there, with Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jack from the beanstalk. They tried to find unconditional love for their families but found it can be a horrible battle. Especially while confronting the Wicked Witch, who used to be the Devil Who Wears Prada. Or being wooed by the Big Bad Wolf, who used to be Sweeney Todd, and liked to eat women. Or Prince Charming, who was admittedly “charming, not sincere.” They did not all live happily ever after, but wow, the audience did.
“Into the Woods” is a paean to the primal magic of storytelling. Brothers Grimm fairy tales were designed to be astonishing, but there’s a deeper twisted anarchy in Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Broadway blockbuster. Based on the bloodcurdling 19th-century German fables, adding characters from 17th-century France’s Charles Perrault and several new creations of their own, their musical resembles a macabre children’s book illustrated by Charles Addams. It begins seemingly prettified, simplified. Then it takes a sharp Act II turn from mollycoddling entertainment into mockery and melodrama.
Original Version Naughty Bits Spoiler Alert: Significant characters get slain, or sleep together lustfully, or kill and hook up concurrently. The new Disney translation tones things down … a bit. It gives us a world of disregarded peasants, neglected children and rotten rulers — a world not so very far from today’s. The story follows the escapades of a dozen storybook folk represented by a touching, top-tier Anglo-American cast, either stars or people who soon will be.
We quickly meet lovelorn Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), nearly pubescent Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), farm boy dolt Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), the kind, obtuse village baker (James Corden) and his cookie-sweet, childless wife (Emily Blunt, in prime form like all the rest). They face off against a spell-casting hag (Meryl Streep), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp, with appetite in his eyes, a take that is shiftier, sexier and gorier than you bargained for) and the Prince (Chris Pine, poised to shatter the world record for one-night stands).
Director Rob Marshall, an Oscar nominee for his adaptation of “Chicago,” made some controversy-shy compromises here. The goth overtones are lighter than in the original Broadway staging (still available on home video), but the general weirdness has not been trimmed to unrecognizable dimensions. Marshall reworks it into an unforgettable fantasy of its own, a tolerably disquieting yet invitingly grim joy.
The heroes have more to contend with than the occasional angry giant. Isn’t Cinderella’s nasty stepmother even creepier, cutting off one daughter’s toe and the other’s heel to fit that slipper Cinder left at the Palace? (Christine Baranski is in fine form, by the way.)
Kendrick’s misadventure with Pine is a grimly funny injunction not to yearn for a prince who may be rolling in money, but who cheats for fun. “Agony,” his song about hammy heartbreak, is fabulous romantic parody.
Blunt is enchantingly touching and rich-voiced as the would-be mother, wistfully desiring a little child as much as the Wolf does, and a prince as much as Cinderella does. Her duets with Corden hit every note with remarkable musical and artistic sophistication. Streep also leads the fable to the sound-filled heavens, but if you’ve heard her sing in earlier movies you knew that already.
The point of it all is that disappointments can’t be avoided, especially when childhood myths are turned on their heads. This is a musical full of discordant notes and compromises and problems; parents now and then bad to their offspring, kids at times imbecilic. It’s deliberately fearsome, because being properly disturbed is a rite of passage for the questioning, rebellious child in all of us. A pleasurable, revealing, informative one.