Let’s get something out of the way up front: I am a huge Broadway nerd. The moment I heard Disney was doing a film adaptation of Into the Woods, memories of gawky grade school sing-alongs came flooding back. Just under a decade ago, my little sister and I likened Stephen Sondheim unto a glorious golden god. So right off the bat, I’m in the distinct minority of this film’s audience. To be fair to the filmmakers, I’ll try to restrict my comments as if the movie was a standalone. What matters most is that Into the Woods is a good movie, not a good adaptation.
Into the Woods focuses on a Baker (James Cordon) and his Wife (Emily Blunt), and I will eternally huff about the fact that neither of them are given names. The couple have been trying for a child for some time, but have been unsuccessful due to a curse on the Baker’s family line. The Witch who placed the curse (Meryl Streep) offers to break it in exchange for some spell ingredients, so the Baker and his Wife forage through the woods to find them for her. Meanwhile, a bevy of famous fairytale characters like Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone, as in “and the Beanstalk”) are also running around the woods to take care of their own plots.
The story goes more or less the way you’d expect if you’re up-to-date on your Brothers Grimm, but with some new intersections; for example, the Baker is the one who trades Jack some magic beans for his cow, and Jack only steals the giants’ singing harp because Little Red Riding Hood dared him to. In the second half, the cheerful fairy tale ending is smashed by the natural consequences of our heroes’ earlier choices, and the world gets a lot darker. Like Hans Christian Andersen dark. The Grimms’ stories may have sent their protagonists through hell, but at least they came through wiser and mostly intact by the end. Andersen liked his cautionary tales with a body count.
The cast was clearly chosen for their acting above their singing, but most of them were okay. Neither awful nor special. The most notable voice belonged to Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve often heard compared to that one girl in your high school theatre troupe who was the director’s pet and always got the lead. She was nice and bubbly and humble, and her voice was nice and crisp, so I’ve got no complaints. Meryl Streep was a great witch, but her singing was the textbook definition of “alright”.
The big shocker for me was Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince Charming. Turns out he can carry a tune just fine, and of course he was born to play the swaggering pretty boy. In fact, the pinnacle of the film is his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince Charming (Billy Magnussen) entitled “Agony”. The boys stand atop the dreamiest waterfall, strike macho poses, and argue about who’s more emotionally torn up over missing their prospective princesses. It’s a cross between an Abercrombie & Fitch ad and the Biscuit Game. Both actors are so bombastic and extravagant that you have to love it. I saw the film on Christmas, aka opening day, and “Agony” convinced the very full audience to burst into applause. Of course every song in a theatrical musical begs polite claps, but you very rarely see an audience applaud for a movie, especially in the middle. It was that fun.
Most older Broadway musicals are prone to characters singing about a complicated event that just happened offstage, since they have neither the budget nor the manpower to carry them out. Into the Woods bolsters them by actually showing parts of the event in question, but only for some scenes. For example, “I Know Things Now” shows Little Red Riding Hood as she is swallowed by the Big Bag Wolf and meets her grandmother in his stomach, and “Giants in the Sky” shows Jack climbing his beanstalk. However, we still don’t get to see what the giants’ castle looked like, or the balls that Cinderella attended. It was fairly disappointing that they gave us a few extras but not the juicy ones.
My biggest complaint is that Into the Woods doesn’t look like a fairy tale. It’s dark and dreary and bleak. Disney’s older princess staples like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were famous for their gorgeous color palettes, and yet this looks about as muddy as Man of Steel. The famed red riding hood and the trees are the only saturated bits of the whole film. I’d understand if the second half got darker and grittier with the story, but the whole thing is so murky, and the second half just gets worse. There are, however, some pretty nice effects. Cinderella gets her dress via a CGI cloud of twigs, which I promise is way cooler than it sounds. The Witch comes and goes via lightning and gusts of wind, leading up to a maelstrom when she peaces out for good. You win some and you lose some.
If you’ll indulge me, I have to steal a line of Into the Woods’ lyrics to appropriately describe it. As the Witch says, “You’re so nice. You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just…nice.” It has some great points, but gets frustrating in equal measure. I hesitate to recommend it because whether or not someone will like it depends entirely on their personal taste. If you don’t like musicals, stay far away from this. If you like your musicals goofy and don’t mind streaks of mediocrity, go ahead, you’ll love the heck out of it. If you’re expecting the highest caliber art befitting Sondheim, just pretend they never made an Into the Woods movie. You can start a support group with the Avatar: The Last Airbender and Percy Jackson fandoms.