When composer Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine unleashed Into the Woods onstage in 1986, audiences gasped when children’s stories about Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and the like were laced with existential angst, Freudian sexuality and a nod to psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who believed Grimm’s fairy tales could help children cope with fear, abandonment, violence and death.
There is still darkness in the Disney film version, but director Rob Marshall pushes past it as fast as he can, cutting songs like the indispensable “No More.” Yikes! Screenwriter Lapine also eases up on the depravity and the dying. I know, I was disappointed too.
Among the compensations for the loss of profundity and purpose is a playful cast. Meryl Streep is a hoot and a half as the gloriously evil witch who imprisons a kidnapped child, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). To undo the curse she has put on a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), the witch sends them into the woods on a scavenger hunt that brings them in contact with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp, lecherous and loving it), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk, and, yes, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her conceited prince (Chris Pine). In a large cast that includes the hardworking Christine Baranski and Tracey Ullman as questionable mothers, the lovely voiced Kendrick stands out as the scrappy Cinderella, who discovers a prince’s charm is mostly illusion. Yes, the sets and costumes elicit swoons, but it’s the peerless Sondheim score, however truncated, that makes this Woods a prime destination.