“Into the Woods” Casting Review

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

What’s Christmas without a good ol’-fashioned musical? Amongst the plethora of dramas and biopics flooding the theaters this season, Into the Woods is a refreshing yet familiar piece of counterprogramming. Based off of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical of the same name, Into the Woods is a theatrical mash-up of some of the most iconic fairy tales and characters in history. The plot revolves around a witch who tasks a childless baker and his wife to collect several items in order to break the curse on their family–a curse that states that they will forever remain childless and barren. The items they are required to collect are, naturally, key artifacts from the various fairytales the story draws from and include Cinderella’s golden shoe, Jack’s milky white cow, Rapunzel’s hair, and Little Red Riding Hood’s cloak. Easy enough, right?

Filmic adaptations of musicals tend to take full advantage of the medium, i.e., readily using their large production budgets to create a grandiose spectacle, complete with all the glitz and glamour one could expect from a Hollywood studio. One would expect a similar kind of treatment with Into the Woods, especially given the fact that it’s a Disney studios production, but the film, surprisingly, sticks to its Broadway roots and the end result is something that feels both new yet familiar at the same time. This can be seen not only in the film’s visual effects and set pieces but also through its cast, who is comprises familiar yet surprising actors–specifically the fact that most probably weren’t aware that many of these actors could sing, and quite well at that!

The story’s opening musical sequence introduces the main protagonists–each one singing and lamenting about their various wishes and secret desires. “Cinderella” wishes to attend the royal ball, “Jack” wishes his cow would give milk, and the “Baker” and his wife wish they had a child. After sending a carb-hungry “Little Red Riding Hood” on her merry way, the Baker and his wife are visited by their neighbor–the friendly neighborhood witch (minus the “friendly”). The “Witch” reveals to the couple the reason for their lack of children: a curse she placed on the Baker’s family after she caught his father stealing magic beans from her garden. Stealing the Witch’s magic beans had serious ramifications, and the act curses the Witch to lose her magical youthful looks–turning her into the old haggard mess standing before the Baker and his wife. Besides cursing the Baker’s father and his family line, the Witch demands one more thing to mollify her–his newly-born daughter (later revealed to be “Rapunzel”). After revealing these narrative tidbits to the Baker and his wife, the Witch goes on to state how the curse can be lifted, and tasks them with collecting the aforementioned iconic items.

The Witch is played by none other than Meryl Streep who (not surprisingly) slays this role. As an added bonus, unless you saw her in the filmic adaptation of the musical Mamma Mia! back in 2008, you might not have known that she can sing! Given these facts, Streep’s casting as the Witch is all too perfect, and the role is a lighthearted romp for the actress who tends to get awards attention for her more dramatic performances, a la August: Osage County and The Iron Lady, to name a few. Streep has numerous comical moments in this piece, and readily pops in and out of the background to remind the Baker and his wife of their task. Later in the story, when the Witch finally reverses the curse and returns to her former and more beautiful self, older viewers will probably get a good chuckle at the not-so-subtle nod to Streep’s previous role as “Madeline” in the 1992 Robert Zemeckis hit Death Becomes Her.

British actors James Corden and Emily Blunt play the titular “Baker” and “Baker’s Wife”, with the latter getting to showcase her stellar musical abilities. Corden showed his musical prowess earlier this year in the musical movie Begin Again with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. He only had a supporting role in that feature, so it’s great to see how that project acted as a good stepping-stone for him to book a more leading man role as the “Baker”. Corden has also been making a bit of a splash state-side and is next set to take over hosting duties for the Late Late Show, replacing Scottish host Craig Ferguson (that show must love having international hosts). Blunt on the other hand will probably be put into the “I didn’t know she could sing” category in the cast, and playing the role of the Baker’s Wife is also a nice change of pace to the actress’ recent string of edgier roles (Edge of Tomorrow and Looper come to mind here). Humorously, Blunt also worked alongside Streep in the breakout comedy The Devil Wears Prada, where her character was also constantly being terrorized by Streep, so it’s funny to see the duo back together again.

Back in the “I already knew she could sing” category, we have Anna Kendrick playing Cinderella. Although her singing abilities are pretty common knowledge by now (she stole our musical hearts in 2012 with the “Cups” song in 2012’s monster hit musical Pitch Perfect), it’s still great to see Kendrick show off her voice. Kendrick’s casting as the iconic princess here is also a no-brainer, especially since she has a very universal appeal and fits in easily in almost every kind of project–indie dramas, comedies, studio tent poles–she can do it all. In fact, Kendrick is probably one of the busiest actresses around these days and seems to appear in every other movie I watch. Along those same lines, Kendrick can also be seen in a supporting role opposite Jennifer Aniston in her drama Cake, which has already begun garnering its own praise. Another no-brainer casting choice is young up-and-comer Daniel Huttlestone as “Jack”. Huttlestone made his feature film debut in another Broadway musical to film adaptation in 2012’s Les Misérables playing the role of “Gavroche”. Similarly to Corden, Huttlestone’s role in the former movie was relatively minor, so it’s great to also see him upgraded to a much larger role here.

Although the Baker, his wife, Cinderella, and Jack’s wishes are the driving force of the story, there are plenty other characters in the kingdom with wishes worth noting. “Prince Charming” wishes to be with Cinderella, especially since she keeps running away from him at the royal ball (playing hard to get clearly works). Handsome Star Trek captain Chris Pine plays the prince, and although he’s an American actor, he puts on a very classical, prince-like dialect that gives him an added layer of international regality. Thankfully, they didn’t just cast a British or Aussie actor instead! Pine also has a swarthy singing voice to match his swagger, making him even more charming (if that was even possible). Ever since he broke out in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot in 2009, Pine has been at the top of people’s lists, and as of late the star has been wisely branching out into different types of projects to properly diversify his resume. Prior to Into the Woods, he played a new horrible boss in Horrible Bosses 2, the sequel to the R-rated comedy franchise. Pine isn’t the only prince in the story, and his brother, “Rapunzel’s Prince” is played by Billy Magnussen. Magnussen is more of an up-and-coming working actor, who should see a significant rise in his profile after this film. He also has a voice to match his princely looks, and in particular his performance of “Agony” with Pine’s Prince Charming will make people swoon.

Other notable wishes come from “Little Red Riding Hood”, “Jack’s Mother”, “Wolf”, “Rapunzel”, and Cinderella’s stepfamily. Little Red Riding Hood wishes for sweets and bread for herself and her grandmother. Lilla Crawford plays the red caped youth, and brings with her a sassy and rambunctious wit not typically associated with the fairytale character. Although Crawford doesn’t have a whole lot of TV/film credits to her name, before Into the Woods, she was best known for playing the titular role of “Annie” in the 2012 Broadway revival, having traded in her red wig for a red cape. Jack’s Mother wishes (amongst a lot of things) for her son to not be so foolish, and is played by legendary comedian/actress Tracey Ullman. Naturally, the Wolf wishes to eat Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, and is played in a special appearance by Johnny Depp. Depp’s last Broadway musical movie was 2007’s Sweeney Todd, so the role of a crooning flesh-eater is befitting. Rapunzel’s wish is to be free from a life of solitude under her mother and be with her prince. Mackenzie Mauzy plays the longhaired damsel.

Additionally, Cinderella’s stepsisters “Lucinda” and “Florinda” wish to marry Prince Charming. They are played by Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard, respectively. The “Stepmother”, played by The Good Wifes Christine Baranski also wishes for her daughters to be married off to Prince Charming, and readily resorts to mutilating her daughters’ feet in order to achieve her goal (ultimately to no avail though). Into the Woods is also a bit of a reunion for the stepfamily, as Punch can also be seen opposite Kendrick in the film Cake, while Baranski starred with Streep in Mamma Mia! It’s definitely a small world in these woods!

Into the Woods readily evokes feelings of familiarity and newness by sticking true to its classical Broadway roots. By keeping the set pieces and sequences to a minimum, the focus of the story remains solely on the ensemble of talent. From a slightly meta perspective, it’s also interesting to look at the careers of many of the actors in this film, as it will give you a glimpse into the inner workings of the casting process and business as a whole. Hollywood works by precedence, and the fact that the likes of Streep, Kendrick, and Corden all showed off their singing abilities in previous musical films certainly gave them a leg up in this film (besides the fact that they’re all exceptional actors).  Although Blunt and Pine probably weren’t as well-known for their musicality prior to this film, the chances of them appearing in future musical projects are highly likely now.

If you’re looking for a Broadway musical without actually having to travel to go to Broadway, Into the Woods is a great way to enjoy Sondheim’s classic tunes. The film also injects a much-needed amount of levity and humor into an already drama-heavy pool of films this season. Watching a lot of heart-wrenching movies based off of true stories can be quite exhausting to say the least, so make sure to venture into these woods for a fun, family friendly escape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kyle