Movie Review: Into The Woods
"Into The Woods" is based on the 1987 Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine and is the ultimate mash-up of familiar fairy tales. And, what better musical for Walt Disney Studios, which is built on fairy tales, to take on. While the story involves such famous characters as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), the film really revolves around the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are wanting to have a child. It turns out that their neighbor, a witch (Meryl Streep), had placed a curse on his father years ago after the father took some vegetables and magic beans from the witch's garden. The witch tells the Baker and his wife that she will reverse the curse if they can obtain four ingredients for a potion - the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold. And, it is through this search the the famous fairy tales are brought together. But, this musical fairy tale is not wrapped up in a tidy bow as Disney's famous versions always are. There are lessons to learn about being careful what you wish for.
I'll start off by saying I am a big fan of Sondheim's and Lapine's stage version of the show. I have listened to the soundtrack countless times, seen a few stage versions and watched the original Broadway version on VHS (and now gloriously through Google Play on my Chromecast). It is my favorite Sondheim musical of all time. So, I was quite familiar with the musical going in. And, I have to admit that I had a lot of questions. I will admit that there was a lot of excitement, followed by some trepidation. How would they do some of the things that were in the stage version, like the narrator or some of the ensemble numbers? And, knowing Disney was doing it, I admittedly wondered how well it would be done. Don't get me wrong. I am a big Disney fan. But, let's face it, the live action movies branded with the Walt Disney Pictures label has been hit and miss for me lately. So, I wondered if Disney could actually not only pull off something this complex, but pull it off well. Well, I am happy to report that I believe this is the best live action film to come from Walt Disney Pictures in years.
I am writing this review after not only a second viewing, but after watching a filmed version of the original Broadway version as well. Before I get started, there will be spoilers in this review, so if you're not familiar with "Into The Woods," stage or movie version, and you don't want to know what happens, it's best to read this after. Although, if you have seen the stage version, chances are, this won't spoil anything but, rather, answer questions.
First of all, I think the film not only looks beautiful, but it has this magical dreamlike quality to it. I am usually a fan of giving musicals a "big" feel. I think musicals are intimate and the scenery should never take away from the heart of the production, which is the music. The cinematography in this movie is so amazing, though, and manages to make "the woods" a vibrant character in the film. With its wonderfully magical looking and stylized trees and beautiful forest lighting, you really feel like you're in the middle of a fairy tale. And, what better way to feel than in a movie musical about fairy tales.
I will admit I panicked a little when they announced the casting. I wondered if they chose casting based on who is popular as they did with musicals such as Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. While I had an idea that Meryl Streep could sing, I didn't know how much she could hold her own to such a Broadway diva as Bernadette Peters who originated the role of the Witch. I enjoyed her in Mamma Mia, but, it didn't really give me the full range of her singing abilities. But, Streep, I think, holds her own. She, at times, channels Bernadette in terms of power of her voice while, at the same time, bringing on her own unique interpretations.
Then, there were actors such as Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and Emily Blunt. Kendrick I had heard sing before, but, again, I had also heard Amanda Seyfried sing and she was one of the weaker performances in Les Miserables. And, to my knowledge, I had no idea that Chris Pine or Emily Blunt could sing at all. They were all amazing, though, particularly Chris Pine who, along with Billy Magnussen, steals the show with "Agony."
And then there was Johnny Depp as the Wolf. I know a lot of people love him, but I am not one of them. He has had a lot of misses for me. But, he didn't bother me here. And, honestly, given that the Wolf is meant to be creepy, I think he plays it quite well. I'm glad they kept him in a limited role as I can only take him in doses, though.
But, my hat is really off to Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone who are the youngest members of the cast. They really shine in this film. I knew Huttlestone would be great, though, as he played Gavroche, in Les Miserables and was one of the highlights of the film for me.
I can honestly say I was pleasantly surprised by all the performances in the movie version. I didn't think there was anybody that was miscast or that couldn't hold a tune. With Les Miserables, there were some that could sing, but others that really could not, try though they may. With Into The Woods, I did not wince once during any of the performances.
Now, on to some of the comparisons with the stage version. First of all, there was some worry that Sondheim and Lapine would have to dumb down the musical to make it more family friendly for Disney's targeted audiences. At one point, Sondheim, who later said he was misquoted, implied that thing like the affair between Cinderella's Prince and the Baker's Wife would be excised from the movie version at Disney's behest. So, I was so glad, after hearing the soundtrack which was released before the movie came out, that the two songs that constitute the affair were still in the film and equally excited that Chris Pine and Emily Blunt played it so well.
The one rumored changes that did end up true was that Rapunzel does not die in the movie version. I'm only speculating, but I can imagine Disney probably worried that a film bearing their name aimed at family audiences might traumatize some children if they were to think one of Disney's most beloved princesses died. I read one review that said that taking away Rapunzel's death ruined the emotional meaning of the "Witch's Lament" and diminished the Witch's motivation for the rest of the film. But, honestly, I really don't think it did. There is something about being rebuffed by one's daughter with the finality of wishing never to see her again that still makes up for it. To be honest, I wasn't always satisfied with the way Rapunzel's death played out in the stage musical anyway. So, I guess, if you loved her death scene, you might feel the same as others. If not, I think you'll forgive the change.
One of the other changes is the loss of the Mysterious Man through the play. Again, he wasn't really a highlight for me in the stage version and seemed a little intrusive to me. I liked that the Baker and his wife had to figure it out themselves without the Mysterious Man getting involved. I think it made their characters stronger. The only sad part is that with his removal, save from one final scene at the end, meant the removal of the song "No More" which is sung by the Baker and the Mysterious Man. I love that song and it is the only song I wish had remained.
And, the final major change was that the outside narrator was now gone, giving the role to the Baker himself. But, again, while humorous, given the more serious tone the Disney version took in the movie, an outside narrator would have been a distraction, especially during the part in the stage version where they break the fourth wall and the narrator becomes part of the story. It would not have worked in this. And, I kind of like how the Baker's storytelling during the finale mirrors the narration at the beginning, bringing us full circle.
It's also interesting to read reviews from people who were NOT familiar with the stage version. They tend to think it drags at the end of the movie, feeling cheated of the happy ending that we are all familiar with. But, again, to me, the point of the musical was not about happy endings, but about being careful what you wish for. And, really, I can't think of what else they could have taken from the second act or even the first act to make it shorter.
For me, the movie version of "Into The Woods" is one of the best adaptations of a movie musical in a long time and one of the best live action Disney films in years.