This is an entertaining and excitingly theatrical film, but it loses a great deal of the allegorical content that made the original stage musical so interesting. The film follows the plot of the stage show fairly closely, but discards the interval between the two acts; in this version, the Giant’s initial attack interrupts Cinderella’s wedding to the Prince. This makes for an effective shock value, but it costs the film the events of the second act’s prologue, which examines the character’s reactions to getting everything they ever wanted and makes the show’s message much more nuanced and complex.
Dispensing with the Narrator character was more understandable, since this extremely theatrical role would have been almost impossible to convey effectively in a film, but the decision to not kill off Rapunzel severely weakens the Witch’s motivation and lessens the impact of her great “Last Midnight” number. The infidelity between the Baker’s Wife and the Prince is somewhat bowdlerized, but since the original production left it ambiguous as to whether or not they actually had sex, this isn’t all that radical a change. There were a few other attempts to soften the material, but it’s actually quite surprising what was left in, including Cinderella’s Stepsisters having their heels and toes cut off and being blinded by birds.
In addition, most of the score is retained, with the only major losses being “No More”, the first-act finale “Ever After”, the reprise of “Agony”, and “Maybe They’re Magic”, and the cast is generally excellent. Meryl Streep is expectedly marvelous as the Witch, singing gloriously and giving an extremely powerful and suitably intimidating performance, but the real surprise is Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, who proves to be a wonderful singer and does an absolutely superb job at capturing the character.
The choice to split the dual role of the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince into two roles is another move that costs the film some allegorical subtext, but both Johnny Depp’s terrifying wolf and Chris Pine’s roguish and subtly predatory Prince are sufficiently excellent to justify the change—Depp in particular steals the show with his deeply creepy rendition of “Hello, Little Girl”.
The actors playing the Baker and his Wife take their inspiration from the London production of the show, with working-class British accents, but they both turn in strong performances, even if the Wife’s central paradox…an amazingly likable character who is also the most immoral figure in the show, thus highlighting the show’ “nice/good” dichotomy…is somewhat lost in this version.
On the other hand, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood are cast far too young: since both characters’ establishing solos are metaphors for sexual awakening, they should be sung by actual adolescents, not children too young to actually understand and convey their contents. This was probably done to soften the risqué subtext of those songs, but it isn’t an effective solution, and has the effect of making them more uncomfortable, not less.
Still, for all the film’s faults, it certainly turned out better than any of the previous three Sondheim feature films, and if it isn’t really as interesting as the video recording of the original production, it would still probably be completely satisfying to anyone unfamiliar with the stage show.