Into the Woods Review
Into the Woods is Disney’s long awaited adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s acclaimed 1986 musical. The film faced criticism ahead of release for edits to the musical’s original text in order to render it more family friendly. Its plot is a blend the classic fairytales of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel, in which a Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) strive to lift a curse placed on them by a Witch (Meryl Streep). The ingredients they must find are in the woods, where they meet the other characters, who have with their own quests for happiness. The musical features tremendous, comic songs and a sturdy performance from its ensemble cast.
Rob Marshall’s direction is solid, however too many of the numbers are choreographed with characters weaving in and out of trees in an unimaginative forest setting. There is not quite a sense of a coherent universe in Into the Woods. This is manifested as a lack of establishing shots, especially in the opening scenes, and a want of illustrations during songs. While Marshall works this element well into ‘I Know Things Now’ and ‘Into the Woods’ it is severely lacking in ‘Giants in the Sky’. This aside, ‘Agony’ sung by the two Princes, is excellently staged and one of the film’s most amusing moments.
Sondheim and Lapine, who also worked on the film adaptation, bring classic stories closer to their original grislier versions, as protagonists face realistic and cruel consequences to their actions. This adds unusual depth to the tale as each character is made to reflect on the moral ambiguity of their choices. The concluding ‘No One is Alone’ number suggests that no individual is fully good or evil, and that the ambiguity is necessary to get on with life. This is one of the film’s most moving moments, as this realisation bonds a crew of characters together, marking one of the film’s few upturns. Due to the film’s satirical tone, it is otherwise difficult to feel for the characters, who are largely parodies.
Meryl Streep and Chris Pine produce stellar work as the pragmatic and sensitive witch and the narcissist Prince. Anna Kendrick conveys Cinderella’s ambivalence with nuance while Lilla Crawford is makes a perfectly stubborn and self-righteous Little Riding Hood. Emily Blunt is terrific as the Baker’s Wife - loving, down-to-earth, and driven.
The musical numbers are witty and intellectually engaging. One exception is Johnny Deep’s ‘Hello Little Girl’ as the Wolf, which is at a crossing between going too far and not quite. His song is vaguely chilling, and should either have been toned down or up. ‘On the Steps of the Palace’, in which Cinderella frankly gauges her options for the future is touching and humorous.
Into the Woods is a mature fairytale, using stories as they were originally intended – to entertain and advise. Sondheim and Lapine subvert and mock the diluted versions of these narratives, in which everyone is led to a unrealistic, unshakable happy ever after. This film is a charming watch delightfully executed by its cast. Its décor lacks in originality and the story’s dark, satirical nature allows less emotional involvement. Its subtleties will be lost on children, who will see their favourite characters in different circumstances, but might emerge rather confused.