Into the Woods – A Review

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When I was younger, I was mindlessly flipping through the channels one day (as I was wont to do) when I came across a staged version on Into the Woods on PBS’ American Playhouse. I was instantly enchanted; I’d been lucky enough to be exposed to theater from our high school theater group and the occasional traveling production, but I’d never seen Broadway caliber talent before. My high school peers did a hell of a job and for a school in upstate New York we had pretty stellar production value, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Bernadette Peters belting out a tune. Not only was the talent way better than I was used to, but I was immediately drawn into the story; the idea that Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood could all co-exist in the same world was a completely novel and revolutionary idea to me. Into the Woods most certainly sparked my love of mashups and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the short story that I wrote that first convinced me that I might have some skill at writing involved playing around with the perspective in fairy tales and a bridge between Snow White and Jack in the Beanstalk. So Into the Woods was kind of seminal moment for me – it began my interest in Broadway musicals and inadvertently was part of the origin story for my lifelong interest in writing that culminated in this blog. So y’all should be sending a thank you note to Stephen Sondheim. Everyone else might have been falling over themselves of Les Miserables, but I was an Into the Woods girl. #teamSondheim Oddly, I have no recollection of ever mentioning my affection for Into the Woods to anyone; I think I was partially convinced that I was the only person who watched that episode of American Playhouse and I kind of liked it being my little secret.

Though watching Into the Woods was a fairly important experience for me, I wouldn’t call myself a fanatic. I never got the soundtrack and I never saw the musical performed live. In fact, I don’t think that I saw Into the Woods ever again after that initial viewing until recently and it was only in the last few years that I realized that it was available on DVD. So as much as I enjoyed Into the Woods and it made a distinct impression, I was a little fuzzy on some of the details. I knew the basic plot and remembered some of the songs, but I wasn’t going to win any Into the Woods trivia contests and most Sondheim purists would be unimpressed with my commitment to the classic.

Still, when I heard that they were making a big screen adaptation of Into the Woods, I was very excited and a little bit apprehensive. There were a lot of rumors flying around about what would make it into the film version and what would be cut, as well as the inherent challenge of moving a story from the stage. On the one hand, without the limitations of a stage production, the director of a film has a lot more options on how he or she wants to present things. On the other hand, sometimes what works well with the intimacy of the stage just doesn’t translate to the more removed medium of film; I’m sure that the fights in August Osage County were much more dramatic and raw on stage, but in the movie they were overdone and annoying. Figuring out how to keep the spirit and essence of the musical while making the transition is a difficult one. The fact that Disney was involved didn’t do much to allay my fears, as I worried that they would want to whitewash some of the darker elements of the musical to protect the images of characters that they have coopted and made their own to the tune of a hefty profit. Johnny Depp was also something of a wild card; I knew that he could sing, but he sometimes makes choice that result in it feeling like he’s in a very different movie than the other actors. Would his weirdness work or would it be too campy? I had similar concerns about Meryl Streep, who is obviously a great actress but who lately I have found edges toward being too big in her performances, especially when given the freedom that the role of the witch would provide her. There had been attempts to adapt this play for nearly twenty years and I was sincerely hoping that now that it was finally happening that the whole thing wouldn’t go off the rails.

Thankfully, Into the Woods really worked for me and I really enjoyed the movie. Overall, the changes that were made basically worked for me (more on that) and the actors all did a really great job with their performances – especially the actors who are not necessarily known for their singing. Nearly a week after seeing the movie I still have several of the songs running through my head. I think even those that are more devoted to the original production will be pleased. After how much I hated Les Miserables, it was nice to enjoy a big screen musical again.

In talking to people who have seen Into the Woods without the benefit of knowing the Sondheim original, there are a few things that you need to know going in:

  • This is a musical. You might think that is obvious, but I know several people who went to see Into the Woods without knowing this. I blame the early trailer and clips of the film that were used to advertise the film, since they tended to downplay the singing. Even the versions that did incorporate some of the songs did so in the background, so if you don’t know the film’s background I could see how you might not realize that Into the Woods is a full blown musical. But they start singing pretty much from the jump in this movie; so if you don’t dig musicals, you may want to mosey along.
  • Despite the focus on fairy tales, Into the Woods gets dark. Real dark. If you are you are expecting your typical take on Cinderella and company you are going to be shocked; the first hour or so sticks more closely to the traditional arc of a fairy tale, but Into the Woods looks at what happens after the “happily ever after” and spoiler alert – it ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Into the Woods may feature familiar characters like Cinderella, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, but it also features murder, adultery, multiple people going blind (some more permanently than others) and death. So don’t go into this expecting all sunshine and rainbows just because you think you know the characters and their journey. The stage musical is actually darker, but Disney allowed the film to be messier than I anticipated.
  • This is not a Johnny Depp movie. Sure, Depp is in the film, but his role is really small despite what the ad campaign may try to tell you. So if you are going in expecting a whole lot of Depp, you might want to prepare yourself to be disappointed.

Now that that’s out of the way, Into the Woods brings several favorites from fairy tales into the same universe; the story begins with several characters longing for things – Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to the Prince’s (Chris Pine) festival, the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) want a child, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wants his cow and best friend Milky White to produce milk so he and his mother (Tracey Ullman) won’t starve and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wants bread to take to her Granny (hey – they can’t all be high stakes wishes). The Baker and his wife discover that their barrenness is the result of a curse put on them by a witch (Meryl Streep) as retribution for the Baker’s father’s sins. They can break this spell if they obtain four objects: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold. This sets the characters on a collision course with each other in the woods as the Baker and his wife try to procure the necessary objects, Jack sets off to sell his cow, Cinderella flees from the Prince and Red Riding Hood fends off the advances of the Wolf (Johnny Depp). To say much more would be to ruin the fun of discovery, but just when they the characters think that they have everything they want, things go to hell in a hand basket thanks in no small measure to the arrival of a Giant.

Overall, the cast did a really great job; there wasn’t an off performance in the bunch. My minor concerns about Streep were unfounded and she pretty much killed it as the witch. Like, she was legitimately great in my opinion. I was also pleasantly surprised by Emily Blunt, who I really like but I wasn’t sure what she was brining to the table for a musical. She was fantastic as well and I really liked her delivery of some lines. She’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. But the true revelation was Chris Pine who was just amazing. The Prince is supposed to serve as comic relief and be a charming douchebag, and man Pine knocked it out of the park. I think I actually liked his version of “Agony” better than in the original, simply because his performance was so unexpected and they picked a hilariously ridiculous location for the number to be performed. I honestly didn’t think he had it in him to pull off this role as well as he did and he had me cracking up almost every time he was on screen. I also want to cite the moxie that Lilla Crawford brought to Little Red Riding Hood; the audience that I saw Into the Woods with was especially taken by her, calling her a “little bad ass.” I presume they meant that as a compliment.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Depp’s interpretation of the Wolf until I rewatched the original Broadway production and was reminded that the Wolf is supposed to be giving off something of a sexual predator vibe in his interactions with Little Red Riding Hood. If anything, Depp’s Wolf has toned down the innuendo a bit – I’d forgotten that the Wolf in the Broadway play had his genitals featured as part of the costume (the Wolf’s, not the actor’s). With that context re-established, I was more pleased with Depp’s performance and his choices. His lecherousness is toned down, partially I’m sure at the behest of Disney and partially because unlike the stage production, there are actual children playing the roles of Jack and Little Red Riding Hood and the song might be off the charts creepy when song to a young woman.

Some songs from the original production were cut, though in all honestly they weren’t really missed. “No More” is an important song in the stage production, but made little sense given other changes made in the film. The mysterious old man is not in the film, which frankly was an improvement in my book and made an already complex narrative a little les muddled. I was bummed that “Agony (reprise)” was cut, not because it was essential to the story – it certainly isn’t – but because I would have enjoyed more singing Chris Pine. The song reinforces the cad that the Prince is, but I understand their decision to eliminate it. There was also an original song for Meryl Streep that was written for the movie and filmed, but it ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor as well (though it will be on the DVD).

My main issue with the film adaptation is the changes that they made to Rapunzel’s story line. This is where I suspect the fingerprints of Disney are the most apparent, though I wish that they had stuck with the original story. The film version changes how her story is resolved and the result is a weakening of the overall story; the witch’s reaction and the song “Children Will Listen” don’t really work thanks to the edits that they’ve made. Her story has little to no weight in the film and she just abruptly disappears from the narrative. If you don’t know how it was supposed to go, you’ll still notice that something about her arc feels unresolved and the resolution feels tacked on and rushed. This is the one change that I wish they hadn’t made, not out of bling loyalty to the source material, but because I think that the edits made are detrimental to the film as a whole. If executed better or with more explanation it might have worked, but as is it was the one misstep in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. Though, for what it’s worth, I always thought Rapunzel’s storyline was one of the weak points of the stage version as well.

Some other thoughts:

  • Christine Baranski and Lucy Punch have small roles as Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sister, respectively. Always nice to see both of them. Cinderella’s father doesn’t make it into the film adaption, but I don’t think anyone will miss him.
  • Giants are surprisingly easy to deal with. And that means that the big climax of the film doesn’t really deliver. That was a problem that I had with the stage version as well, but the problem is only exasperated in the film. It’s all a lot of buildup to nothing.
  • I really like the decision to move the location of where the song “On the Steps of the Palace” is sung. Makes more sense, is visually more interesting and is just one example of the movie having more flexibility than the stage play.
  • Did everyone else know that Chris Pine’s dad was on CHiPs? I just found this out thanks to The Tonight Show and it blew my mind.
  • My favorite line of the entire movie/play may be “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

Into the Woods is a very enjoyable adaptation of a fairly beloved Broadway musical; it’s relatively faithful to the original and most of the changes made were fairly minor and helped to streamline the story. If you liked the play, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the execution of the film; the cast all do a fantastic job in bringing these characters to life. If you aren’t familiar with Into the Woods but enjoy musicals or creative takes on fairy tales, I think you’ll be satisfied. If you don’t like musicals, I’m not sure why you’re going to see Into the Woods. Reevaluate your decision making process. Into the Woods is a fun movie that kept me entertained and rekindled my love for the stage version. I only had a few quibbles with the film, primarily that I can’t get these songs out of my head.

Into the Woods is currently in wide release.

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One thought on “Into the Woods – A Review

  1. Jen Jen says:

    Based on the PG rating I decided to bring my youngest who knows all the songs in the show but has never been allowed to see it due to the Wolf scene. I was glad that they played down the implied seduction/rape scene. The songs are catchy and fun for kids but the storyline is deep and interesting for adults. My kids kept singing “It’s the last midnight” all day today as we prepared for for New Year’s Eve.

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