The production of Into the Woods has been a series of ups and downs for theatre fans around the world. The film’s mere existence is worthy of excitement, but the presence of Disney overseeing the relatively mature Stephen Sondheim musical was cause for concern. Sondheim’s involvement (along with the original show writer James Lapine) allayed some fears, but his interviews caused a lot of confusion about what changes had been made, what songs had been cut, and how “family friendly” the film had been made. The A-list cast and director Rob Marshall brought some Hollywood glamor to the movie, and all that remained was to wait and see how it turned out. The end result is a fairly faithful, extremely well made adaptation of a musical that is perhaps better suited for stage rather than screen.
Into the Woods takes four familiar fairytales and weaves them together around the story of a baker and his wife, who are unable to have children because of a witch’s curse. In order to break the curse they must head into the woods next to their village to seek out four items: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a slipper as pure as gold. This setup allows the baker and his wife to flit in and out of the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. These characters are all united by their wishes, whether for freedom, family, or wealth, and each wish leads them into the woods and away from their ordinary lives. Once in the woods their stories unfold, sometimes in familiar ways and sometimes not, with the baker and his wife always playing a role in the story while the witch watches on. And although the stories play out in a way in which we’re generally familiar, what’s more interesting is what happens after the “happily ever after.” Perhaps a wish coming true isn’t always the greatest thing.
That’s the great appeal of Into the Woods, the way it takes those familiar fairytales and shows us what comes next, calling the very idea of wishing into question as it brings all of the characters back to the woods as the realities of life and some giant problems intervene. It’s not all about happy endings, and it offers a new (well, a 27 year old) spin on tales we know so well, many of which have been animated by Disney over the years. Along the way, it gives us new twists on familiar scenarios, whether it’s a wolf that’s predatory in a way that’s more than a little creepy, a pair of princely brothers who sing about the agony of girls just out of their reach (in the film’s most hilarious number), or Cinderella pausing on the stairs to debate how to handle her situation. It all has the trademark Sondheim cleverness, combined with his intricate music and thematic songwriting, and it combines the hopefulness inherent in fairytales with the darkness so often found in life. And make no mistake, Into the Woods is definitely dark, despite some minor adjustments to the story to make slightly more palatable to families.
Rob Marshall, returning once again to musical cinema (after Chicago and Nine), is perfectly suited to this sort of adaptation. He has the ability to tie these stories together visually in a way that allows some of the more complex moments/numbers from the stage to work seamlessly on film, and most importantly he knows how to get out of his stellar cast’s way. And what a cast! Meryl Streep may be getting top billing (and proves once again that she knows her way around a musical) as the witch, but Emily Blunt as the baker’s wife, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and James Corden the baker really drive the film and deliver some of the best performances. Kendrick is having a superstar moment in her career, and she’s completely at home in musicals (as she should be given her Broadway history and Tony nomination), and she really understands how to make a song engaging both with her singing and her acting abilities. Emily Blunt surprised me with a stellar voice, and she and Corden anchor the movie by making the baker and his wife feel real and sympathetic when surrounded by fairytale stories. Chris Pine has some hilarious moments as Cinderella’s prince, and Johnny Depp finds the right balance of creepy and charming as the Wolf. The supporting cast is full of talent, including the incomparable Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski, but I was perhaps most impressed by the two kids in the cast. Daniel Huttlestone was familiar after breaking hearts as Gavroche in Les Miserables two years ago, and he is once again fantastic as Jack (of beanstalk fame). And Lilla Crawford, a film newcomer with Broadway experience, is delightfully quirky as Little Red Riding Hood, and she has a beautiful voice that stands out even from her spectacular costars.
As a production, Into the Woods is lush and enchanting. Sondheim’s music blends perfectly with the gorgeous sets and costumes, and combined with some clever filming locations it all gives the film a sense of reality necessary for the transition from stage to screen. That transition doesn’t come off perfectly, however. There are cuts and alterations of course, as there would be in any transition, but overall this is a very faithful adaptation. But Into the Woods will never sit entirely perfectly on screen. It’s a show that is so tied to the typical Broadway two-act structure, in which act one tells the fairytales as we know them, leading to happy endings that are then pulled apart and examined in act two, that it’s hard to find the right break in the film. As a result, act two of the show is relegated to the final third of the film, and as such the last 30-40 minutes feel rushed. At the same time, that section also drags a bit, and I imagine it will have a hard time connecting with moviegoers who are fans of musical theatre.
And that’s all part of a larger problem that is not the fault of Into the Woods. It’s no secret that musicals are not particularly popular anymore, and in fact often trigger some surprising hostility from those who aren’t fans. Combine that with the typical film audience’s expectations for a traditional happy ending, and you’re likely to end up with a lot of people who leave Into the Woods not only unsatisfied but also having failed to “get” the film at all. Judging from the audience when I saw the movie, many people would have been happier if the film ended after the show’s first act, not delving into the complex, mature conclusion to the story. Into the Woods is a story that requires some thought and effort from the audience, and it doesn’t exactly spell out a nice tidy lesson for those who watch it. Sure, things fall apart in an interesting and entertaining way by the end, but the question of why they fell apart, what led to the situation in the first place, and what we can learn from it about human nature is all a bit murkier and open to interpretation. That’s not something that I imagine most audiences want from a family-oriented musical from Disney released on Christmas. That’s not the film’s fault, nor does it detract from the movie in any way, but it is a reflection of the current state of pop culture. People like things either dark or light, with no crossover between, and Into the Woods is all about the mingling of the two. That makes it one of the more interesting films of the year, but it may not make it one of the most popular.