Modern movie musicals for me land somewhere between “Yeah, all right,” and “Buh, no thank you.” I have a hard time with musicals not on a stage. They just seem too artificial to be anywhere else. That being said, I can usually appreciate the artistry and craft it takes to make such big pictures with lots of moving parts. I expected not to care much for Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods just based on idea of it existing alone. I’ve never seen the show Into the Woods but I knew enough to know that it was essentially poking fun at the Disney way fairytales are presented, and for it to be made at Disney seemed destined for catastrophe. However, I have to say this wasn’t the case and I was pleasantly surprised. For most of it.
Based, of course, on the Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods is a retelling of a number of classic fairy tales (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk) all set in the same universe, and indeed the same general area, with all characters living near the fabled Woods, which happen to be in just about every old story. (Sidebar: Were “the woods” so prevalent back in the day?) Each of the main characters are wishing for something and a witch (Meryl Streep) is one who can both help people with their wishes and has a wish of her own. She tells the baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), who desperately want a child but can’t conceive, that she will lift the spell she placed on their house if they are able to retrieve several incongruous items, including a white cow, a gold slipper, a red cape, and golden hair. If they do so before midnight on the third day, they’ll get their wish. Luckily, people from other fairy tales are in the woods as well and each happen to have the things the couple need.
Now, as I said before, I have never seen this musical before and so have no attachment to it either way, but I was really delighted by most of it. I thought all of the actors did a really fantastic job (with one exception I’ll get to later). There were people I knew were great singers like Streep and Anna Kendrick, who plays Cinderella, and they didn’t disappoint, but I was pretty surprised with how funny Chris Pine was as Prince Charming. The swaggering d-bag character came very easy to him. All of the big musical number set pieces I thought were excellent, and that’s usually where I start to doze in a movie musical. Here, though, not particularly fancily-shot, but a solid showcase for the voices, and the comedy.
The one bit people knew was going to be crap the moment it was announced was with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and The Wolf (Johnny Depp). In the stage play, The Wolf’s interactions with Red have quite sexual overtones. However, in this adaptation, anything too forward would be inappropriate for a Disney film. As a result, they cut out a huge amount of the Wolf’s stuff to the point that now Depp is in one song and one little tiny bit of one other scene, and we only get references to what he “showed” the young lass. He’s also terrible in it, and his costume looks like a reject from Cats — not a wolf at all. The whole thing felt so out of place.
Now for most of the running time, I was saying to myself, “Why, this is a lot of fun. I wonder why people were worried.” And then we got to the second half of the play, the dour and sad part. That only takes up maybe a half-hour or 40 minutes of screentime, I’d bet, and so it just felt incredibly rushed. A lot of it felt like it was coming out of nowhere and the character motivations didn’t make sense with what we’d seen onscreen. I’m sure there are huge swaths of the play that fans will be sad are missing, but I was blissfully ignorant and only acknowledged it as awkward within what I was seeing.
That all being said, I found myself liking most of the film and REALLY enjoying the performances and so for that I, surprisingly, would recommend people go see this. It’ll make good holiday and family viewing, just don’t expect a thoroughly faithful adaptation, or one that’s even all there.