With Into the Woods, we come to the end of My Year With Meryl, and what a great film to go out on. This funny, fast-paced movie musical that is dark enough for adults to appreciate, while toned down from the stage version enough to appease children, is uneven at times, with a supremely weird third act that throws one surprise at the viewer after another. But the film is an entertaining romp all the way through, with a terrific ensemble cast that features Chris Pine in his most scene-stealing role to date, Emily Blunt in a bravura performance, and Meryl looking like she’s having some of her most fun on-screen in four decades of filmmaking.
Meryl has said in interviews that for decades she had vowed to never play a witch on screen, because as soon as she turned forty, she received offers for three witch parts in one given year (she turned forty in 1989, so the Anjelica Huston role in 1990’s The Witches seems like it could have been one of them). She didn’t like what a witch represents: an older woman, ugly, isolated, with no wants or desires except to bring misery to those around her. Thankfully after nearly twenty-five years she put a hold on that rule just this once to play the Witch in Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), written by James Lapine, and based on the 1987 Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd). Winning Tonys for Best Score and Best Book, among others, Into the Woods ran for 765 performances over nearly two years, and has received national tours, numerous revivals, school productions, and reunion concerts. Now the film adaptation has finally arrived, and while it’s not perfect, it is one of the better movie musicals of the last ten years, and certainly Marshall’s best movie since his Academy-Award-winning debut, Chicago.
Fairy tale adaptations are definitely in right now, with Maleficent a recent blockbuster, and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella likely to enchant audiences everywhere. Into the Woods is such a welcome delight in that it, like the ABC hit Once Upon a Time, blends numerous fairy tales all into one story. The characters of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel are all represented here, in an original story about a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Blunt) who are unable to start a family of their own, until one day the next-door Witch (Meryl) places a curse on them, forcing them to set out on a quest that could make a baby a reality. The duo ends up finding Jack’s cow, Rapunzel’s hair, Red Riding Hood’s cape, and Cinderella’s slipper, but will that be enough to appease the Witch? It’s not an easy adventure for anyone involved, what with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) climbing up and down the beanstalk, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) being locked away from life and love, Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) trying to evade the hungry Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Cinderella (a perfectly cast Anna Kendrick) fleeing from the ball on a nightly basis.
All of these stories and characters being tossed around a single movie might have been chaotic or confusing, but Marshall’s assured direction and Wyatt Smith’s skillful editing keep everything clear from the first scene to the last. The major actors in the film all get at least one stand-out moment (with only Depp being underutilized), and the songs do a terrific job furthering the story and showing the hope and heartache in the characters, rather than ever stopping the movie cold. One element the film handles especially well is understanding that most viewers know these classic fairy tales through and through and don’t need every moment of them visualized on-screen; Marshall wisely avoids showing Jack up in the Giant’s castle or Cinderella dancing in the castle with the Prince (a delightfully goofy Chris Pine) and instead gives us the essentials that are needed for this particular story. Some have complained that the last thirty minutes or so of the movie, which more or less represents the controversial Act II of the stage musical, take the narrative in a misguided direction that feels strained and unnecessary. However, it’s this stretch of the film that the most interesting things actually happen, with the fairy tale endings we know by heart flipped on their heads and often cruelly ripped apart to create a dark, original ending that is in every way unexpected. Not all of the third act works—it does hit a lull or two—but much of it breaks from the norm, making for a conclusion that feels fresh and exciting.
One of the great joys of Into the Woods is seeing great, likable actors in both big roles and small. Kendrick is one of the highlights of the movie, with her pitch-perfect singing and vulnerable characterization of Cinderella that rings true. Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch are sinister as Cinderella’s stepsisters, and Christine Baranski brings a welcome comedic touch to her Stepmother. Daniel Huttlestone is a likable find as Jack, and it’s always fantastic to see Tracey Ullman, who plays Jack’s mother, in a movie. Lilla Crawford is a bit shrill, unfortunately, in the role of Red Riding Hood (and Johnny Depp gets almost nothing to do), but Mackenzie Mauzy is an effective screen presence as Rapunzel. Billy Magnussen is handsome and debonair as Rapunzel’s Prince, but it’s Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince who steals the show; Pine is hilarious and appropriately charming in the role, and his rendition with Magnussen of “Agony” is one of the film’s most memorable moments. James Corden is fine and tender as the Baker, but it’s Emily Blunt who truly shines, with an emotionally rich, tour-de-force performance that allows her to sing, beautifully, for the first time on film. She’s stunning in this.
And then, lastly, there’s Meryl. Into the Woods marks her third and last supporting role in a 2014 film, and after appearing in underwritten, disappointing parts in The Giver and The Homesman, Rob Marshall’s musical finally gives her great things to do as the Witch, who is given depth, power, and fragility in her perfectly placed moments. Like Heath Ledger’s the Joker in The Dark Knight, the character of the Witch is in Into the Woods just the right amount, with Meryl freakishly good in a role that really amounts to two different people. The first is a wounded, bitter, outrageous old witch, with shaggy gray hair, scars and wrinkles on her face, and crusty, yellow fingernails. Meryl has rarely played a character this ugly before, but it’s the Witch’s love for her daughter Rapunzel that makes her far more than a one-dimensional villain. The Witch slowly becomes someone we’re rooting for just as much as the Baker and his wife. The second character is the post-transformation Witch, a stunning beauty with curly blue hair and a regal blue gown that is alternately Meryl’s most gorgeous minutes on film. She is a hoot in the third act, with winning moments of both humor and raw emotion.
The number one joy of this movie, though, is getting to hear Meryl sing on-screen once again. She has show-stopping numbers in Ironweed, Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion. She danced all around Greece in the musical blockbuster Mamma Mia, still to date her most successful movie. And now in Into the Woods we get three fleeting but extremely effective Meryl numbers that may mark the best her voice has ever sounded in a movie. Maybe behind all that crazy hair and make-up she felt more free, and maybe the fantastical, theatrical nature of this material convinced her to go bigger, but Meryl is a powerhouse singer in Into the Woods like she’s never been in a film before. Her “Witch’s Lament” is quietly haunting and only sad in that it doesn’t go on longer, and her emotionally powerful “Stay With Me” will likely be the clip that runs at awards shows. But it’s her final big number—“Last Midnight”—that impresses most of all, with Meryl big and alive like she rarely gets the chance to be on-screen anymore, having what looks to be, after four decades in movies, the ultimate time of her life.
There’s a scene toward the end of Into the Woods where most of the characters come together, and in one single frame Meryl stands with Christine Baranski, her Mamma Mia co-star; Emily Blunt, her The Devil Wears Prada co-star; and Tracey Ullman, her Plenty co-star. It’s not a majorly significant scene—all the characters are confronting the angry female Giant—but it was this moment, where Meryl stands with three previous co-stars, that it hit me: My Year With Meryl is finally over. What a privilege and a joy it has been for the last fifty-two weeks to watch this actress evolve, surprise, affect, and entertain. She is the best we have, the most awarded and nominated actress we have, the most incredibly talented movie star in the world, and in Into the Woods, she gives us yet another of her astonishing performances.
Thanks for an amazing year, Meryl. I will miss you.