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Preview: Into the Woods

9 January 2015 | Laura Stevens

Into the Woods is a magical wandering through the woods, a liminal space where anything can and does happen in this superb reworking of your favourite childhood stories.

Once upon a time there was a little girl called Red Riding Hood and she was visited by her fairy godmother who told her she shall go to the ball. Or, was that Cinderella who lost her way when visiting her Grandmother’s house?

If this is sounding a bit confused and unfamiliar then that is exactly how the characters in Into the Woods often feel in this deliciously subverted mash-up of traditional fairytales. In fact, the Baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) even proclaims at one point: “I’m in the wrong story!”

It all begins with the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s wife whom to lift the curse of barrenness must collect all the objects the witch (Meryl Streep) desires. From this simple premise, all chaos ensures. Characters interact, with disastrous and joyful results, and all have to face the consequences of achieving their hearts’ desires.

The might of Walt Disney has taken on the power of Stephen Sondheim in this production of Into the Woods and delivers in a gloriously multicoloured and star-studded movie. Shot in just 55 days, cameos appear from left, right and sometimes the sky, with Frances de la Tour towering over the forest bellowing "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" as the giantess that Jack has wronged.

Yet, whilst the movie is a confident splash of musicality, the cast were not quite so self-assured about their own singing ability. Blunt has “always found singing very nerve wracking” and undertook lots of singing lessons to prepare for the role, and Streep swam a mile a day before filming to increase her lung capacity. Streep acknowledges this preparation was out of the fear of what could of happened – “You can imagine how badly this could have gone!”

Streep delivers a memorising performance that has drawn critical acclaim with her transformation from embittered hag to glittering sorceress. Despite her joking there “wasn’t that much work to be done” to create her as the evil witch, the prosthetics and beautiful costumes by Colleen Atwood certainly help the metamorphosis.

There was also a deeper-rooted motivation for Streep taking this role, as it became a “political reaction against the concept of witches and age being horrifying and a scary thing”. These comments were in light of her agreement with Russell Crowe’s controversial declaration in Australia’s Women’s Weekly that “Hollywood actresses need to act their age".

And, it seems not only were the audience drawn by Streep’s cackling makeover into the witch. Famous fans were also delighted, with Johnny Depp voicing his desire to play alongside her and Sondheim personally penning a song for her.  

Depp plays the Big Bad Wolf with his styling based on the 1940’s Tex Avery cartoons, hence why the anachronistic square suit and fur-fringed fedora in a wardrobe of medieval fairytale dresses. Depp slinks on for a few songs in his characteristic strangeness and oozes his hunger for tender Red Riding Hood and her less succulent Grandmother. Director, Rob Marshall, spoke about the “creative force” of Depp and how excited he was to be part of a company and “not have to carry a film”.

And, like all fairytales, it is not a safe or easy path through the woods to the characters’ happy endings. More in keeping with the original edition by the Brothers Grimm, gruesome touches are kept in the including mutilation of the ugly stepsisters’ feet to fit into the golden shoe alongside the blinding of said relatives by birds picking out their eyes. As Marshall cryptically says, the show “explores the consequences of wishes”.

Even this creation of Into the Woods was not without its detours from the path and occasional falling tree. For Marshall getting the film off the ground was tricky as “musicals are still a risk”, and all the actors “cut their price to make it happen”.

And, the resulting movie is a magical wandering through the woods, a liminal space where anything can and does happen in this superb reworking of your favourite childhood stories.

Into the Woods is now screening nationwide. Visit Disney's website here.

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