When you think of Disney fairytales, you probably think of happily ever afters, catchy musical numbers, charming princes and beautiful princesses. Into the Woods, the new film from Walt Disney Pictures, has all of that, and more. It’s beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted, and nearly perfect adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
Into the Woods is the story of a childless baker and his wife who just happen to live next door to a witch. Turns out the witch had a beef with the baker’s parents and put a spell on the family that would keep them from ever having children. For reasons of her own, the witch tells the couple how to reverse the curse: go to the woods and bring back 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 in motion the events of the film and brings the couple into contact with characters from several different Grimm fairy tales.
Combining the familiar stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood may sound like a variation of the Shrek films, but long before the green ogre made fairy tales pop culture, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, the Pulitzer Prize-winning team behind Sunday in the Park With George, created Into the Woods, a fairy tale mashup musical that became their longest running show and most profitable hit, winning Tony Awards for Best Music & Lyrics and Best Book of a Musical.
The story is ostensibly about what happens after ever after. The first half of the film closely mirrors the musical’s first act. The Baker manages to save Red Riding Hood from the belly of the Big Bad Wolf. The Baker’s Wife finds Rapunzel’s hair. They trick Jack into selling his cow for five magic beans. Cinderella keeps running from the prince and running into people in the woods. All things work out they way you know the stories do: Cinderella and the prince get married, Jack kills the giant, Rapunzel finds her prince, the Witch reverses the curse placed upon her as well and gets her beauty back, and the childless couple have a baby. As the original musical says, “And all who deserved to were certain to live a long and happy life, ever after!”
But the stories don’t stop there. Turns out that Cinderella’s husband is a bit of a philanderer. The Witch has lost her magic. And worse, the giant whom Jack killed? His wife is now on the rampage looking for whoever it was that murdered her poor husband. Be careful what you wish for, the story seems to say. You may get exactly what you asked for, but you’ll also get a lot more in the bargain.
It’s definitely not a story one would expect from Disney. It’s second half is quite somber, there is not a typical “happy ending” to the fairytales. Main characters do die at the hands of the giant, some people reveal themselves to be quite selfish, and the final moments of the film, like the original musical, are a powerful indictment against self-centered thinking that drives most of the action of the story–and society at large.
As a long-time fan of the original musical (I purchased the Original Broadway Cast recording on the day it was released in 1987), I’ve been, as Little Red sings at one point, “Excited and scared” about this film. It’s easily one of my favorite musicals by my favorite composer. Stephen Sondheim has done more to grow and change the face of American musicals than any other, and this show is easily his most accessible for audiences unfamiliar with his unique musical and lyrical style. Getting it wrong would have been very easy, and for the most part, director Rob Marshall and his talented cast and crew get it right.
Meryl Streep is no Bernadette Peters, who played the Witch in the original production and remains the gold standard for the role. But she is quite affecting and shows off her seldom-heard singing voice. The part is both villain, comedic, and sympathetic and Streep pulls of all three quite well. Emily Blunt, as the Baker’s Wife (she is never given a name), is easily the heart of the story as her quest becomes quite personal and her encounter with royalty gives her one of Sondheim’s best songs. Cinderella is played by Anna Kendrick of Pitch Perfect fame, and I was surprised at the quality of her voice, although it is a it nasal at times. She is quite good as a very indecisive young woman who really doesn’t want to choose anything (and sings about it beautifully in “On the Steps of the Palace”). Quite good also is James Corden as the Baker who comes to realize the value his wife brings to his life and quest, although his character development is hampered by one of the film’s few very bad choices. Chris Pine, as Cinderella’s prince, is all strapping manliness and charm and easily carries off the musical’s most fun crowd pleaser, “Agony.”
Costumes, cinematography, editing, and special effects are all top notch. It’s a beautifully done film, full of rich colors and moments and making excellent use of both studio and location filming. The titular woods are at times menacing and enchanting, and it’s easy to see that no expense was spared in making this film look as good as possible. Director Marshall is in much better control of his film here than he was in the poor adaptation of Chicago that inexplicably won Best Picture several years ago. Songs are given time to grow and develop, the big and small moments are given time to shine. By the end of the film, there are some genuinely emotional moments due to the combination of story, song, and film. It’s easily the best film adaption of a musical since Les Miserables two years ago, and it may actually be better. It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
The songs are filmed the “old fashioned” musical way (unlike Les Miserables, the actors recorded their songs earlier), and the songs are easily some of Sondheim’s most hummable. The title song was meant to have that Disney sing-song quality, and it certainly does a great job of setting the story up. Other fantastic songs are “Giants in the Sky,” sung by Jack, “Moments in the Woods,” sung by the Baker’s Wife, and “It Takes Two,” an appreciation of the power of working together sung by the Baker and his Wife. The orchestrations are superb and sound amazing with a full orchestra, adding depth and beauty that couldn’t be matched with a simple Broadway pit orchestra.
However, I do have quibbles with the film. Some are minor: I understand that Johnny Depp is a big star and his face in the film may help it sell overseas. But he doesn’t look like a wolf. At all. Which is a shame, because I actually enjoyed his performance and even his singing. Alternately fun and menacing, Depp reminded me a lot of Robert Westernberg in the original cast. But his costume is just bad. Bad. No attempt is made to make him look like a wolf. Instead, he looks like Johnny Depp in a zoot suit and cat whiskers. Which is unfortunate for him and for the film. Luckily, he is in the film for only a very short time, so this distraction is kept to a minimum.
On a much bigger scale are the cuts made to the musical’s score due to running time or just bad decision making. Both of the cuts were made from the musical’s second act, and the songs that were cut are inexplicable. The first is a reprise of the song, “Agony,” sung by Cinderella’s and Rapunzel’s princes. Even funnier than the first version, it highlights the philandering nature of both charming princes, has the best exchange in the musical: “It’s no sicker than your thing with dwarves! Dwarfs! Dwarves! Dwarves are very upsetting…” Due to the seriousness of the second half of the film, it’s a much missed comedy moment.
Even worse is the cut of the Baker’s big song, “No More.” One of the key underlying issues in the original musical, and hinted at frequently in the film but never developed well, is the fact that the Baker believes he will not be a good father due to the failures of his own father. In fact, one of the main characters in the original film is a mysterious man who shows up frequently to assist the Baker on his quest and turns out to be the father that had gone missing years before. Confronting both his own inadequacies and his own father, the Baker says he is done. “No More!” He tries to run away, but his father reminds him that the “trouble is son, the farther you run, the more you feel undefined by what you have left undone and more, what you’ve left behind.” It’s a powerful moment that isn’t as strong in the movie. The song is reduced to underscore as the Baker begins crying over his loss and worry. James Corden would have nailed this song and it’s unfortunate that it was cut, because it hurts his character’s story arc.
On the whole, though, Into the Woods is a fantastic adaption of Sondheim’s practically perfect score. James Lapine, who wrote the book of the musical, also wrote the screenplay and it retains much of its humor and wit. It’s a very funny musical, both in lyrics and in lines, in addition to being a powerful reminder of the power of the individual.
The most memorable song comes at the end of the story. About to face a giant and filled with uncertainty, the Baker and Cinderella remind Jack and Little Red that “No One is Alone.” People frequently use the song’s lyrics to encourage each other, as a reminder that “we are all in this together, you aren’t alone.” But that is not what the song is about, nor is that what Into the Woods is about. “Someone is on our side, someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot: someone is on your side, no one is alone,” sing the four as they wait for the giant. It’s a reminder that we are not alone. Our choices, our actions do not affect us alone. Every wish we make will affect someone else, for better or for worse. You aren’t alone, so don’t act like you are. No one is alone.
It’s a powerful reminder of the affect our choices will have on the world. At the beginning of the film, every character has a wish and they hope it comes true. For better or for worse, they get what they wish, and it leaves all of them forever changed. It may not be your typical Disney happy ever after, but it’s one that helps audiences everywhere understand the power each of us hold to affect the lives of those around us. “Do you know what you wish? Are you certain what you wish is what you want?” these are questions the film asks–and makes it worth going Into the Woods.