At the start of Into the Woods, gnarled, moonlit branches wreath the familiar Disney logo—that oft-chipper image of a pristine castle and its glittering moat. The tweak, of course, is meant to usher you right where the title suggests, but it doubles as a brooding harbinger of the darkest, ballsiest bit of entertainment released by the Mouse House in some time. Granted, that’s not really saying much, as Disney has rarely been a place to turn for risky business, and purists are bound to be miffed by the relative tempering of sex and violence in this Hollywood take on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Broadway hit. But for those who were reared on live-action fantasy cinema from the 1980s, or the various Grimm fairy tales on which the 1987 musical was based, Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods film feels just radical enough to cleanse the palette, specifically amid Disney’s new trend of serving up toothless self-cannibalizations, from Maleficent to Saving Mr. Banks.
Occasionally laced with innuendo to match, Into the Woods is a veritable orgy of some of your favorite bedtime stories, placing Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) alongside a blue-haired witch (Meryl Streep), two handsome princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), and pint-sized beanstalk-climber Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). Though perfectly harmless for whatever niece or grandchild tags along while you watch Streep dust off her Postcards from the Edge pipes, this PG-rated romp is, refreshingly, less notable for its happily-ever-afters than its oh-no-they-didn’ts. The woods itself isn’t so much a Sleepy Hollow-style horrorfest as a labyrinthine den of desires, where Rapunzel canoodles with her beau, Jack nabs magic beans that’ll summon a giant, Red gets stalked and swallowed by a very pedophile-y Wolf (Johnny Depp), and a baker’s wife (Emily Blunt), while joining her husband (James Corden) on a quest to break the witch’s curse and get pregnant, strays from her path to get all adulterous with Pine’s cheeky, philandering royal.
Again, this is tame stuff when compared to the majority of titillations in popular movies, but in a genre so increasingly bent on shielding young people from anything without a sugary coating, it’s heartening to see characters not only pursue their (sometimes) dubious wants, but also suffer their share of consequences (in grand Grimm fashion, folks are blinded, dismembered, and, in a few cases, even killed—all with a condemning, yet frolicsome, wink). Adapting his own book into a script, Lapine largely finds a satisfying medium between the adult-oriented liberties of theater and the heavy-handed filters of the Disney machine, while Marshall, ever the director to cook up marvelous musical numbers amid a clunky whole, matches the tone with his smattering of showstoppers. Like James Marsden in the somewhat similar once-upon-a-time riff Enchanted, Pine is urged to go full-tilt in mocking his dreamy image, and “Agony,” his pretty-hurts duet with fellow heartbreaker Magnussen, is a campy, queer-eyed highlight, complete with bared chests and high kicks in a waterfall setting.
Streep, meanwhile, is given ample space to soar away with the show, which is both a blessing and, if you will, a curse. Helping to bury the memory of a shrill career low in August: Osage County, the full-time headliner and formidable part-time vocalist beautifully blazes through all of her songs, which run the gamut from kooky to desperate to flat-out forest-shaking, and which, given the witch’s central role in the story, feel logically spotlit as opposed to being mere Streep kowtowing. Still, while young Crawford and Huttlestone are the only weak links in the tuneful cast (Blunt, specifically, revives many a scene with her transfixingly strong singing), Streep outshines her co-stars to the point that her absence is a detriment. Even before the film’s climax, when the curse reversal de-ages the witch a la a certain pink serum in Death Becomes Her, Into the Woods—which runs an exhausting 124 minutes—already starts to unravel faster than Rapunzel’s severed braid. Plotlines run rampant, interest wanes, and the brazen morals so saucily delivered in the movie’s first two thirds become buried in literal and figurative final-act rubble. But most egregious is the lull that manifests after Streep’s closing number, a swirling, throaty rendition of Sondheim’s famed “Last Midnight.” A towering giantess (Frances de la Tour) still threatens the lives of the remaining woods-dwellers, but Streep looms large enough that when she makes her exit, she takes the movie with her.