Blu-ray Review: Into the Woods (2014)

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Fairy tale characters are arguably bigger than ever these days and Disney is, no surprise, leading the onslaught. Last year they hit pay dirt with the popular but middling, live-action Sleeping Beauty reimagining Maleficent. This year they’ve followed it up with the much stronger Kenneth Branagh-directed Cinderella. On TV, their ABC network has developed a strong following for the multi-character fairy tale mashup Once Upon a Time. The only surprise with their recent adaptation of Into the Woods, a popular stage musical since its mid-‘80s debut, is that it took this long to get it to screens. It’s now available on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, and Disney Movies Anywhere.

The all-star cast offers something for nearly everyone, with Meryl Streep having accumulated most of the high-profile accolades (including an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) as The Witch. Yes, this is a musical and the Stephen Sondheim songs charge right out of the gate with the lengthy “Prologue: Into the Woods.” The whole cast is in on it, with the blending of many classic fairy tale characters and types resulting in a lively, expository set piece. We meet The Baker (James Corden, new host of CBS’ The Late Late Show), The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and more. We even get Johnny Depp in a cameo as the Big Bad Wolf.

ITW04 (380x254).jpgIt’s an admittedly huge cast, but director Rob Marshall manages to keep everything under control and, for the most part, streamlined into a 124-minute runtime. The whole motley group of characters has some business or other to conduct in the woods, so in they bound with great abandon. The Baker and his Wife are promised a child by the manipulative Witch, who has been cursed for losing the magic beans. Jack’s and Jack’s mom (Tracey Ullman) grow said magic beans, with the resultant giant beanstalk leading to a havoc-ridden situation later in the film. We get condensed versions of Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s stories. It’s all deceptively light and fun until the tide turns for a decidedly darker third act.

ITW05 (380x254).jpgThose familiar with the oft-performed stage production may or may not be happy with the nips and tucks that were performed to supposedly make Into the Woods more manageable. I’ll leave those arguments to people far more familiar with the original stage play. As a movie, it’s frothy and energetic, with strong performances by most of the cast. The young, new-to-movies actors Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone (Red Riding Hood and Jack, respectively) are particularly endearing. But Marshall should’ve handled the shift to the far darker, weightier tone of the third act far more definitively. The “not every ending is happy” theme needed to pack a far more palpable punch for these Woods to have the necessary impact.

ITW13 (380x254).jpgStunning visual presentation highlights Disney/Buena Vista’s Blu-ray edition of Into the Woods. Dion Beebe’s cinematography offers a frequently dark, shadowy vision of the mythical woods. The 1080p transfer allows for a great level of fine detail to come through that darkness. The DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix is incredibly enveloping. All of this pretty much goes without saying anyway, as Into the Woods is a big budget (though at $50 million, simultaneously modest, all things considered) studio production that has no reason be anything less than spot-on from a technical standpoint. Still, this is a remarkably strong presentation.

ITW2117 (380x254).jpgFans will undoubtedly be pleased with the amount of care Disney invested in the special features. Director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca delve into all aspects of the production, leaving virtually no stone unturned in their audio commentary. Marshall introduces a deleted musical number featuring Meryl Streep in the featurette “Streep Sings Sondheim.” “There’s Something About the Woods” offers a 13-minute overview of the production. “The Cast as Good as Gold” spends about ten minutes looking more closely at the talented cast. The subsection “Deeper Into the Woods” gives us four additional featurettes (“From Stage to Screen,” “The Magic of the Woods,” “Designing the Woods,” “The Costumes of the Woods”) that add up to about a half-hour of behind-the-scenes exploration. While there’s no standard DVD in the package, there is a digital copy available.

Into the Woods is not for all tastes and its relatively lukewarm box office reception made that clear upon it’s Christmas 2014 release. But with such a strong cast and first-rate production values (not to mention the built-in audience of fans of the stage version), Into the Woods should have little trouble finding an audience on home video.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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