Hansel, when he went into the woods with his sister Gretel, left a trail of breadcrumbs, so as to facilitate the trip back out. Hansel was the thinking child's fairy-tale protagonist.
Opening on Christmas Day, Disney's Into the Woods is Rob Marshall's fun and charming film adaptation of the eccentric fairy-tale musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine from 1987. What is celebrated is the art of storytelling and the bedazzling attraction of a killer cast, uninhibited acting, giddy escapism, attractive visuals and an extroverted score.
The narrative is quite the thing, too: A veritable parable hit parade (give us a bow, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and that Jack who climbed the beanstalk) is woven together, with the characters' individual quests tangling with those of the others.
As the title indicates, the action happens deep among the trees, where bad things traditionally happen. Hansel and Gretel are not involved – not even a cameo – but maybe they should be. Sondheim, Lapine (who gets a screenwriting credit here) and Marshall walk us into the woods merrily. The trick is in getting us back out carrying something worthwhile.
The wrap party for Into the Woods must have been a humdinger. Heading the cast is Meryl Streep, who plays a grudge-bearing witch wickedly. She's a curse-flinger who has caused a baker and his wife to be childless. In an effort to reverse the spell, the flour-happy couple goes on a whimsical scavenger hunt into the forest, which is where the aforementioned Brothers Grimm all-stars come into play.
The baker's wife is Emily Blunt, who is delightful as the plucky and relentless better half to her indecisive bread-making husband (round of applause to actor James Corden, please).
Johnny Depp, as the wolf whose burps smell like a grandmother, has a smaller role than most of the other players, but he does make an impression – an impression of rock star Jack White, from the looks of it. Remember that Depp's warm-water pirate Jack Sparrow was based on the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards.
At the screening I attended, the young women in the audience laughed over and over again at Chris Pine's over-the-top portrayal of Prince Charming. For me, the hamming produced diminishing returns. Still, there is one line from Pine's Prince (who is an absolute cad) that will never get old: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."
So, no, the Prince is not worthy of Cinderella, the beslippered, ball-dancing beauty and stepchild casualty. Which is fine enough, because this Cinderella – a radiant and clear-voiced Anna Kendrick – is an ambivalent one. Kendrick sings Sondheim's intricate lyrics about life choices and unsure self-identity superbly: "But then how can you know/ Who you are till you know/ What you want, which I don't?"
Confusion, then. Where traditional fairy tales spell out life in simple and certain terms, Into the Woods dispels the myths. "Witches can be right," Cinderella and the baker sing late in the film, "giants can be good." The song is No One Is Alone, which tells us that life is hard and that decisions aren't clear-cut, but that, ultimately, we're not alone in our pursuits.
Life is no fairy tale, that's the message. Into the Woods uses old stories for a modern memo – in its way, chopping down trees to make room for a forest.