Film Review – Into the Woods
Into the Woods
Long before Shrek was cramming modern day pop references into classic fairy tales, many years before the TV show Once Upon a Time was blending all of Disney’s properties into a single tale, well before the admittedly brilliant comic book Fables was mashing together classic fairy tales, Stephen Sondheim created the amazing Broadway musical Into the Woods. Now there is a new film version based on this pedigreed stage show.
Full Disclosure: Personally, the stage show of Into the Woods is my second favorite musical of all time (those who know me in real life have likely already been regaled by my enthusiastic drunken love of first place choice West Side Story replete with finger snapping and loud bouts of butcher “Maria” for all to hear). Sondheim is great, and there are so many things that are terrific in Into the Woods in music as well as plot structure that I can’t praise it enough. So this new film had a pretty high bar to jump over for me. Does it? The answer is, kind of.
For those who don’t know, this show takes Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, adds a story about a Baker and his wife, and has all of them interconnect. But it’s not just simplistic kiddie show. All of the stories take comedic and dark turns. Little Red Riding Hood is rife with sexual innuendo. Cinderella is more about self-determination than just about getting a pretty dress. Rapunzel becomes a moving metaphor for parents dealing with their children growing up. But connecting all of these stories is the couple who can’t have children but can break the spell if they can present an evil witch with “the cow as white as milk, the hair and yellow as corn, the shoe as pure as gold.”
Let’s begin with the best parts of this film version. The cast is pretty terrific. James Corden soon to be of the Late Late Show fame is a sweet engaging presence with a very fine voice as the Baker. And Emily Blunt as his wife is great at showing that she’s more than just a supportive partner. Johnny Depp makes what’s essentially an extended cameo as the Big Bad Wolf and has a lot of fun with it. Anna Kendrick is proving to be the go-to person lately for musicals and she is in fine voice here as Cinderella. Chris Pine absolutely nails his role as one of the Prince Charmings. Of course the showiest part is the witch played here by Meryl Streep. She is having a glorious time on screen and you can feel that enthusiasm coming through. Her opening part during the initial refrain of the titular song “Into the Woods” where she semi-raps about people stealing her “beans, beans, nothing but beans” has some very fun turns of mood. Also, her emotion during “Stay With Me” is quite moving.
Previously helming the Oscar winning musical Chicago, Director Rob Marshall and company have gotten the most important thing correct here which was filling this cast with people who know how to sing. There are no Russell Crowe in Les Misérables instances of cringe inducing casting of a big name for marquee value instead of voice talent. Everyone here acquits themselves well. In particular, four of the principle characters’ harmonizing during the beautiful “You Are Not Alone” towards the end is quite lovely. My personal favorite song in the whole show is “Agony.” As sung by both of the Princes who run through these tales, it plays much like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are both stellar in their duet. And Pine’s character who was “raised to be Charming, not sincere” is great at portraying self-involved obliviousness.
But that brings us to the criticisms of this movie. Some of this may come off as a person who is overly attached to the stage show picking apart an adaptation. When things are created for the silver screen they need to be changed just to actually work in a different medium. I get that. And when a fan of a book complains endlessly during a movie how “the book was better” it gets really tiresome. Granted. But in this case comparisons to the source material point out how a show that is really great can be reduced to something that is merely good.
Structurally things have changed. In the play, there are two acts. By the end of the first act, all of the fairy tales with which we are familiar have been neatly tied up and everyone is living “Happy Ever After”. So the brilliance of the second act is what is life like after “Happy Ever After”? For instance, the goal for Cinderella and Rapunzel this whole time was to get married. So what happens now that they are? Granted, in a film this two act structure can’t be adhered to and needs changing. But that clear delineation really helps thematically. It’s what makes this a grown up tale. In the stage show, there is a reprise of “Agony” with some stellar lyrics that show how awful these Princes really are. Yet in the film that second round of the song is cut out entirely. In the film, there is no second act to the Rapunzel story.
Generally speaking, I wish this movie had gone darker. This is a PG-13 story that was made into a PG Disney film. On stage, there was an actual sex act that merely becomes kissing here. Also, usually Little Red Riding Hood is cast as a teenager. That way all of the innuendo from the wolf during “Hello Little Girl” is hilariously sexually creepy. But here she is cast younger. Lilla Crawford as Red is an excellent singer, and she lands some jokes, but the sex is definitely toned down. Also, on stage there is a narrator that becomes part of the story. I get how that might not have worked on screen, but how he is used helps to underline how dire things get towards the finale of the story. When Jack is singing about “big tall terrible giants in the sky” it should feel lonely and desperate. In this film, that underlying sadness doesn’t quite take root.
Should you see this film? Absolutely. The songs are great. What we get of the Princes is worth the price of admission itself. And there is genuine fun to be had here. But if you’ve heard talk about the greatness of Into the Woods and people have waxed rhapsodic about it, this isn’t the version of which they speak. To quote the show “Nice is different than good”. This movie may be a little closer to nice.