If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise.... Or so the nursery rhyme goes. But fans of Stephen Sondheim’s musical won’t find anything unexpected in this screen adaptation of the 1987 Broadway musical. The production is over 20 years in the making (Cher, Robbie Williams and Goldie Hawn were originally set to star in it), and the play has been a school production staple in the US for decades, occupying a similar spot to Oliver Twist in our national psyche.
British punters will know the first half of the story regardless; Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack (of Beanstalk fame) all head into the eponymous woods. Their fortunes are bound by the Witch, a backcombed, blue-rinsed Meryl Streep, who tells the baker (a tuneful but bland James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) that she’ll give them a child if they collect certain tokens from each character. So far, so fairytale, but things really get interesting in the second act where Sondheim continues on into the “ever after”. Happy, it isn’t. In fact, most schools in the US omit the second half completely, before the infidelity and eye-gouging ensues.
Marshall wisely cast singers who could act instead of the other way around as Sondheim’s scores are notoriously spiky, off-beat and difficult. We knew Streep, Cordon and Anna Kendrick were up to the task, but Blunt completely steals the show with a disarming charm and acute sense of the ridiculous. Johnny Depp also slouches in as a jazzy wolf with an appetite for children, a darkly comic turn that’s enjoyable and uncomfortable in equal measure.
If you venture into these woods, you’re likely to find a safe, but star-studded tale, that’s perfect for a dark winter’s night.