Into the Woods has a pretty long history on the road to the big screen. The closest they have come was a 1991 televised version of the stage version on PBS (with Bernadette Peters as the witch). Who would have guessed it would take Disney to create the film version of a messed up series of fairy tales? Thankfully, they came through with about 90% of the film, which is a pretty damn good grade. I love this musical – Stephen Sondheim writes ridiculously complex lyrics that can take a very long time to fully absorb, so seeing how they decided to adapt and manipulate the story was very interesting. Ultimately, I thought it was very successful.
Into the Woods rests upon a similar theme within 4 main fairy tales – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel – that of wishing for more than you have. Given the place these main characters start out, it’s not hard to see that they might deserve more than being an abused servant, a nearly starving boy, and a woman trapped in a tower by a witch. What connects all of these stories is another plausible (though made up) tale of a baker and his wife who have been cursed, by the same witch that keeps Rapunzel locked in her tower, to be childless. The witch gives them the recipe to break the curse, but it requires a list of specific items – a cow, a golden slipper, a red cape, and golden hair. It is only a matter of time before the couple meets up with our other fairy tale characters and the adventure begins. The part that makes it Sondheim, and not just Disney, is that the second act starts to F*#k with them.
What Sondheim questions is what do we do once our big dreams have come true? We don’t think beyond achieving these goals. “Wishes may bring problems, such that you regret them. Better that, though, than to never get them,” wasn’t actually used in the film, but is a big part of what the story is trying to say. In having these dreams – to wed a prince, to have a baby, to escape the tower – you’d better be sure you actually want it. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) has a great song trying to figure this out specifically as she’s running away from Prince Charming. The other piece is sung by the Baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) who proclaims “To get what you want, better see that you keep what you have.” She is clearly trying to say that you should also appreciate what you’ve already got and not give it all up just in case you don’t actually get your wish. I’ve always thought Sondheim did a great job looking at the complexities of wishing.
Overall, I really liked Into the Woods. All of the singing is excellent – particularly Blunt and Kendrick – and with 2 exceptions, I’m in favor of how they trimmed the play into the film. One of the two big songs they cut would have set up the second act better – instead we just keep going without the big shift in tone. There’s a song that sets up the idea that perhaps they don’t all end up better after getting their wish, and that the wishing doesn’t actually stop. The music is there, but they cut the singing from the film. The second cut is just for fun – Chris Pine plays Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy)’s Prince and they discuss the “Agony” of being unable to get what they want (ironically since they’re SUPER privileged). By attempting to not over-complicating things, the film left out their reprise where the Princes pine after Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, which has some pretty funny lyrics too. But their duet is amazing – lamenting on a waterfall, through over-the-top acting, how hard their lives are.
There were some things that the film got right in ways I’d never noticed or thought about before– both Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were both terrific. On stage, they’re often played by near adults, but these are clearly children/tweens crushing it, particularly Crawford. She has an unfortunate scene with Johnny Depp as a creepy Wolf, but still manages to be a strong character and just bitchy enough to carry the part of the know-it-all little girl. In addition, the Baker has always seemed quite feeble in the play, but James Corden plays the somewhat helpless Baker really well – struggling with his losses and gains throughout, while being pretty darn funny.
Finally, Meryl Streep as the witch is another fine entry by the legendary actress, but I still like Peters’ humor in that role better. Streep works with her costumes well and builds a fairly “witchy” persona, but it doesn’t have the gravitas linking everything together that the stage version has. Regardless this should not stop you from taking a trip Into the Woods. Go see it – it’s a wonderful and complicated film that will keep you thinking for a while about the dangers of getting what you’ve always wanted.