Sometimes, if you shift gears, you can turn a perplexing movie into a pleasurable one. This is the case with INTO THE WOODS, Disney's much-hyped adaptation of the beloved Stephen Sondheim musical, which happens to have recently finished a run at Playmakers. If you enter these woods looking for a typical Disney movie musical experience, you're going to be very uncomfortable for 124 minutes. Instead, tune in to Sondheim's crazy rhythms—polyrhythms, actually—and go with the jagged flow.
Into the Woods mashes up elements from several Grimm fairy tales—Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood—and adds a framing story about a childless couple and a witch's curse. Many familiar faces gradually join the fun, including Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Tracy Ullman and Meryl Streep. By the end of Act One, we're dealing with several maidens, two dueling princes, a couple of kids, multiple beanstalks, a troubled marriage and a cow.
The principal thrill of Into the Woods is marveling at how Sondheim juggles all these elements in surging musical numbers, almost fractal in their complexity. Clever internal rhymes and syncopated rhythms stack and build, with characters caroming in and out of overlapping verses. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) expertly transposes stage magic into screen magic, and the performers are clearly having a blast with the challenge—Kendrick and Streep, especially.
Marshall preserves the Broadway musical's two-act structure, which can feel jarring if you're expecting the usual three-act movie treatment. This is where the gear-shifting comes in. Act Two is all about the consequences and epilogues of fairy tales—what happens after Happily Ever After. It's thinky and revisionist, and the story doesn't build and crest in the places we're used to. Even with this in mind, though, the pacing in Act Two is off, with too many lulls and dead spots. But the musical numbers still land with authority and thematic density.
Lest this all sound too heavy, be assured that Into the Woods is fun and friendly, and the kids will dig all the PG storybook madness. It's this season's movie musical destination for family holiday outings. Because you really do not want to see Annie. Trust me.