School productions of Into the Woods often stage the first act, which culminates in a happy ending for all, and skip the second, which follows the characters into the more realistic aftermath of having all their dreams come true. Marshall, thankfully, doesn’t, but without an intermission, the film loses some momentum in its second, darker hour. The Witch is transformed back to her spectacular, Oscar-ready self, but she loses her ability to do magic. The Baker and his Wife have a child, but they’re still wishing for more (a bigger house, for the Baker to hold his baby, which he seems to fear). Kendrick admirably conveys Cinderella’s ambivalence to the Prince throughout his pursuit of her, meaning that their marriage feels unsatisfactory before it even begins, and becomes even more so. Meanwhile a magic bean is discarded in the woods, allowing another giant (a woefully underused Frances de la Tour) is able to come down to earth and seek revenge on Jack for killing her husband.
It’s in this second act that Sondheim seems to make a case for moral ambiguity, but Marshall doesn’t so much probe the limitations of categorizing things as good and evil as he attempts to tie up loose ends in a sadder, wiser bow. Still, the stellar ensemble cast finds nuance in the intricacies of Lapine’s screenplay. Corden is particularly intriguing when he confronts the terrors of parenthood, a subject also wrangled gorgeously by Streep’s Witch in “Stay With Me” (when she pleads with Rapunzel not to grow up and leave her) and in the closing number, “Children Will Listen.” “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true,” she croons, tender and vulnerable. “Princes, yes, but wolves and humans too.” It’s a virtuoso encapsulation of the love, sadness, joy, rage, and fear involved in sending children out into the world, and one of the most exceptional vocal performances in the film.
As the Baker’s Wife, Blunt is similarly adept, faced with tackling an immensely practical character who struggles when confronted with fantasy made real. While she and Kendrick deliver gracefully understated and thoughtful performances, Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) is gloriously, madly over-the-top, oozing panache from every pore. “I was made to be charming, not sincere,” he tells Cinderella, and his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Magnussen), “Agony,” is a breast-beating, hair-tearing lesson in melodrama. The only weak link is Huttlestone as Jack, who seems too young for the role, and whose lines get lost in delivery. When he sings about a “big tall terrible lady giant … and she gives you food, and she gives you rest, and she draws you close to her giant breast, and you know things now that you never knew before,” the insinuation of what exactly he’s learned up in the sky is either lost or downright creepy.