Into the Woods

by Alex Stroup, staff writer
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There's something this review can't do for you. It won't be able to opine on whether Rob Marshall's adaptation of Into the Woods, the 1986 Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, properly captures the stage musical.

I came into this movie almost completely without preconception. In fact, while I knew it has been a play on Broadway, I didn't actually know it was a musical until a few weeks before the movie screened, when the trailers and commercials became a bit more specific about it.

So in fairness, I'm going to assume that whatever is good and flawed with the stories and songs is the fault of the source materials, while the director gets credit for the pacing and visuals.

Into the Woods is in the genre of revisionist fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm are mined here, with Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella," and Little Red Riding Hood entwining to show, that getting what you wish for may not be all that it's cracked up to be. Unfortunately for someone not already familiar with the nearly 30-year-old source material, it comes at the end of a lengthy sequence of revisionist fairy tales.


Official trailer from "Into The Woods." Copyright Walt Disney Company.

The idea that fairy tale life was more real than presented is hardly interesting on its own these days. So it is a bit humdrum that the most contrary thing Into the Woods has to say is that a marriage based on an evening of dance and a shoe that fits may not actually be everlasting. Do we get an allegory for Little Red Riding Hood as a treatise on childhood sexual exploitation? Nope. Do we learn that Cinderella's evil stepsisters are really wounded souls at heart? Nope. How about stealing from the giant at the top of the beanstalk revealing we should be wary of fracking? Not a chance.


Image by Walt Disney Company.

It's simply that sometimes you get what you want, only to learn really shouldn't have wanted it. And the failure to make big tortured claims ends up working to the movie's benefit; it tells its story without straining for a point, and within that, allows characters to expand and performances to live.

Of particular note are the female leads, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), the Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and the Witch (Meryl Streep). Each distinguishes herself as  unique, finding a correct tone of evil, ferocity, innocence, or preturnatural awsareness. Kendrick and Crawford are strong singers—and Blunt surprises, and keeps up with them. We've seen Streep singing before in Mamma Mia! and that wasn't necessarily a complete success, and at first it'll seems she's avoiding the issue by speaking her lines more than singing. Eventually she belts one out, and it is fine, even if you wonder how much of an engineering assist she's getting.

They also handle their tone shift well. The structure of the movie is such that it almost feels like two separate episodes of a TV show rather than a cohesive whole. At what is presumably the intermission break, it felt so done that I started to grab my stuff to exit the theater before realizing that only 70 minutes had passed.

…And then the movie continues with a change in plot so abrupt that I kind of expected to see the opening credits again.


Image by Walt Disney Company.

The male side of the ledger is a little weaker. The Baker (James Corden) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) are fine, but two days after seeing the movie, their performances have mostly faded from memory. Johnny Depp makes a brief appearance as Mr. Wolf, but he just carries too much baggage as an actor taking odd roles to completely blend in.

Most surprising is Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince. He lays on the smarm and, along with Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen), gets the closest thing to a showstopper I experienced with "Agony," in which they compete over who is most hurt by love's travails.

The fact that "Agony" is the song I best recall hightlights a weakness of the movie. While the songs never really harm the movie, neither do they feel essential to it. Many songs are just exposition, and worse, a few simply restate what was just shown. At times it reminded me of one of those "literal videos" where the lyrics of the song have been rewritten to match the actions of the music video (see, for example, "Total Eclipse of the Heart").


Image by Walt Disney Company.

If it's easy to imagine a musical without the music, then perhaps it didn't need to be a musical.

Into the Woods remains well worth seeing. Good performances shine through depsite the songs being rarely impressive. Which is a nice surprise, since neither of Rob Marshall's other musicals (Chicago and Nine) were any good at all. Yes, I said it: Chicago was not a good movie. Good to finally get that off my chest even if it is completely irrelevant at the moment.

Take your family to the theater this holiday weekend—and your homework is this: Compare and contrast the techniques of adaptation used by Rob Marhsall with Into the Woods and Will Gluck with Annie.


  • Into the Woods is a Walt Disney Pictures release.
  • Wide theatrical release on Thursday, December 25, 2014
  • Directed by Rob Marshall
  • Screenplay by James Lapine
  • Starring Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Mackenzie Mauzy
  • Running time: 124 minutes
  • Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
  • Alex's rating: 7 out of 10


Image by Walt Disney Company.

 

Comments

  1. By tea4two

    I'm glad you enjoyed the film. Mr. Tea and I are big Sondheim fans and have loved "Into the Woods" since the original Broadway production. That being said, we were curious to know how someone who had no background with this musical would perceive the film. So, again, I'm glad you did enjoy the movie and that not knowing the show was not a problem for you. By the way, you're not the only one who thought the tone/plot shift from Act I to Act II was abrupt. During previews of the stage production, audience members actually left because they thought the show was over. Many schools only perform Act I because it seems so complete in itself. (It does help that the narrator on stage begins Act II with the line, "Once upon a time... LATER." At least that gives you a hint that things are about the change course!)
    I do disagree with your opinion that the songs aren't essential to the film -- as with all Sondheim musicals, the songs are critical for character development and advancing the story. They fill in plot lines, reveal motivation, and highlight internal contrast and conflict (e.g. Cinderella's song "On the Steps of the Palace" and the Baker's Wife's song "Moments in the Woods"). And all done with profoundly intelligent and humorous lyrics ("there's no time to sit and dither, while her withers wither with her...") and music. The score for the show and the film is like a character in itself -- working its way backwards and forwards, reworking the same refrain (a magical 5 notes that gets repeated over and over) like a tapestry throughout the story. Admittedly, not everyone who sees this film will appreciate this. But Sondheim's work (music and lyrics) and James Lapine's book supporting the music cannot be discounted or ignored. This movie cannot exist without the songs -- removing them would be like removing the heart of this film. If you have the time and are interested, a very good DVD exists of the original Broadway production with Bernadette Peters. That might be an interesting exercise in comparison now that you've already seen the film, or for anyone who wants to know the background for the film. Some characters were removed (e.g. the Baker's father is the narrator on stage and has a moving duet with his son in the second act, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty make an appearance, etc.), some scenes were deleted or cut extremely to streamline the film (e.g. the Baker's duet with his father has been cut and replaced with a few lines of dialog). Seeing how much was cut or changed gives a greater appreciation for the director's achievement -- Marshall's direction has been described as "percussive" -- and it is, in a good way, to keep the story moving forward at the pace it requires.

  2. By olegc

    I too saw the film without having seen the Broadway production (D23 preview). I knew it existed and as to who has starred in the Broadway show here and there. I must say I really enjoyed the film - and it has grown on me since I left the theater a week ago. The songs that hit for me were No One is Alone (edit) and Children will Listen - mainly because I take those songs to heart as to how to help my own children over the years grow into who they are today. Those two songs have stuck with me since the film ended. It was interesting that so many in the theater loved and even applauded the Agony number (from familiarity it seemed) but no extra applause for any other parts of the film. I know its a strong part but a little over the top for me. I am one who loves Broadway shows but don't follow it too closely. Lloyd Weber and Sondheim both are well known to me but again I can't say I'm as geeked out about Broadway as I am for Disney. The Tony awards are usually must see TV for me just because I like musical performances. Maybe its the many years (and still going) of performing musically myself both in concerts and in support of performances by others. Who knows. For me this film was great and I have been recommending it to others whenever they ask.

  3. By carolinakid

    I adore musical theater but have never been a big Sondheim fan. If I had to name a Sondheim favorite of mine, I'd have to say A Little Night Music. I do like individual songs from his other shows but I am still not the Sondheim fanboy as many others are. I won't be seeing Into The Woods in theaters but that's because I'm still pissed at what Meryl Streep said about Walt Disney (that he was anti-woman, a racist and an anti-Semite) earlier this year at the tribute to Emma Thompson.

  4. By Alex S.

    Quote Originally Posted by tea4two View Post
    I do disagree with your opinion that the songs aren't essential to the film -- as with all Sondheim musicals, the songs are critical for character development and advancing the story. They fill in plot lines, reveal motivation, and highlight internal contrast and conflict (e.g. Cinderella's song "On the Steps of the Palace" and the Baker's Wife's song "Moments in the Woods"). And all done with profoundly intelligent and humorous lyrics ("there's no time to sit and dither, while her withers wither with her...") and music.

    Thanks for the kind response.

    Those who know me know that I'm really not the best person for music criticism. But when I said that the songs weren't essential I didn't so much mean that they could have been cut from the movie and it would have been fine. Just that for me there was nothing about them that said "now that had to be done in musical form!"

    As an example -- and to use "Agony" again, which really is the only specific song I can still remember details of a week later -- that song filled a plot purpose better as a song than if it had just been acted and spoken. To me, the same is not true of the number with Little Red Riding Hood and Mr. Wolf. But that may just be a quirk of me. I tend to prefer more choreographed musicals, a bit more dance with the song.

    But I will stick by thinking that some of the songs were overly expository. Simply describing what has happened rather than showing it. I would have to see it again as I failed to note it and can't recall the details but do remember one moment where we saw a performed moment. AND THEN they sing a song that describes what they just did. I wondered if in the original staging maybe the acted scene didn't quite exist or was sparser so that explanation was more warranted.

    I do think it was a very good decision to have kept it to two hours. I'm sure some of the changes will annoy people who love the play but when adapting to film it is important to remember that most people will have never seen the source material and three hours would have been way too long.

    As for people only staging Act I, doesn't that kind of remove any narrative point to it? Essentially reversing the message to just being "yay! getting wishes is fun!"?

    And now I'll go back to people hating on me for my hatred of Chicago.

  5. By Alex S.

    Oh, and another thought I had after watching the movie.

    Since Disney is already doing a live action Cinderella, they should do live action Jack and the Beanstalk (I know, done recently by someone else), Little Red Riding Hood (can you imagine what they'd have to do to pad it), and Rapunzel (I know, too soon after Tangled).

    Then once those four movies are out there, do Into the Woods with the same actors as a musical spoof of The Avengers.

    Honestly, I don't know why I'm not running a studio with brilliance like that.

  6. By Jimbo996

    Stephen Sondheim is not type of composer. Perhaps that's my warning for avoiding the musical.

    Funny how you didn't like Chicago since I regard it as a successfully adapted musical. The truth of the matter is most musicals were not successfully adapted. So much have failed. Very few worked and I must add the latest failed adaption was NBC's Peter Pan, which perhaps is the middle ground between live and staged and the medium of television. Thus, Into The Woods might fail for the simple reason that it just doesn't translate. As for Chicago, I still enjoy repeat viewings despite turning Miss Sunshine into a non singing role.

  7. By tea4two

    Quote Originally Posted by Alex S. View Post
    ... To me, the same is not true of the number with Little Red Riding Hood and Mr. Wolf. But that may just be a quirk of me. I tend to prefer more choreographed musicals, a bit more dance with the song...

    Interestingly, the Broadway production did have more choreography with this number (making it quite clear that the wolf was predatory in his motives -- and his costume was VERY anatomically correct -- while Little Red was not willingly going along with the dance). I assume that all this had to be muted for the film. It doesn't need to be totally spelled out, and I doubt Disney would have approved it anyway.
    One problem with the songs in this film is that the action for the most part happens in the lyrics (which are densely packed), not in choreography. People who don't already have the lyrics memorized aren't going to be able to catch every word in order to understand all the nuance. For example, Cinderella accomplishes something important for her character in "On the Steps of the Palace." She has to make the first big decision of her life, choosing between an abusive home where she can be herself and the magical palace where she knows she doesn't belong. What to do? Then (in a change from all the other versions of this story), she decides to leave her shoe (deliberate, not an accident) for the prince, so he can pursue her if he so chooses. This could be covered in a few lines of internal monolog, but the song is lovely and does the job so much better.

  8. By cheshirecatgirl

    Question for those who have seen the movie: is it appropriate for kids? My five and almost seven year old nieces loved Maleficent, is this movie on a par with that one?

  9. By tea4two

    I'd say that this really isn't a kids movie, even though it's being marketed as one -- mainly because of the maturity of the themes. Kids may enjoy the special effects (we haven't seen "Maleficent" yet, so I can't compare the two movies) and the singing in general, but I don't know that they will understand what's really going on in the story. We heard adults leaving the preview talking about how surprised they were with how deep the themes were. The movie isn't offensive in any way -- very well restrained about violence and sex (again, implied, but kids won't necessarily pick up on it -- it's PG, not PG13), so you might want to YouTube some of the songs (look for the original Broadway cast), just to see if you and they like them. Then you can go ahead and see it with them -- at least they will recognize some of the songs that way. (You can check the soundtrack CD on Amazon to see what songs remain so you don't learn a song that got cut.) And, like with "Annie," if you want to, you could see the movie alone first, then take the girls. I remember how much they enjoyed "Frozen," and Sondheim's music isn't really similar (although "Into the Woods" is perhaps his most relatable musical), so I would hate for them to be disappointed. Hope this makes sense!

  10. By safmouse

    Regarding the songs: The complex plot means many of the songs have to be expository because a theater director doesn't have the luxury of special effects, elaborate scenery, or the staging of intricate action sequences that a movie director can. I can see how in a movie that can become redundant, which is why I'm skeptical whether this was a good musical to make into a movie, despite the fairy tale elements that attracted Disney.

    Sondheim's style doesn't help in that it emphasizes verbal dexterity, wordplay, and clever timing over pretty melodies, unlike Andrew Lloyd Weber. In live theater, this can be exhilarating if done well, but I can see how with the distancing effect of a movie it can fall flat. So with the "Hello Little Girl" number, if the two live actors have good chemistry together, the entire song can be quite enjoyable--but on film, not so much.

  11. By tea4two

    Johnny Depp does a pretty good job with "Hello, Little Girl" -- conveying the sleaze factor, without being too clearly perverted about it. I don't know if he had good chemistry with Little Red, but if not, it certainly isn't for any lack on his part. We were very sceptical about this movie before seeing it, but have to say that, while it isn't perfect -- it certainly has its weaker moments, Rob Marshall has done a surprisingly good job (and I say "surpringly" because "Nine" was such a disappointment) at bringing this complicated play to the screen.

  12. By cheshirecatgirl

    Thanks, tea4two. I got the movie soundtrack a few days ago, but I haven't listened to it yet. I'll listen with the girls and I'll probably see the movie first.

  13. By Teddi

    Not a kids movie, IMO, though the PG-13 rating is due to thematic rating and not due to visual content or cursing or sexual content. My girls saw it and they were luke-warm to it. The content is much heavier than I thought. I have never seen the theatrical version or even knew ahead of time what the film was really about.

    Whoever said the songs and lyrics are key- they absolutely are. To character revelation (more than development) but very much so to the theme. I liked the movie but had no idea that it was not a lighthearted film. SOME of the songs FELT redundant, but I am glad to see musicals as a genre getting made again. I was very underwhelmed specifically with Little Red's performance actually. I felt just about everyone else out-acted her.

  14. By oregontraveler

    I saw this last Saturday, 12:30 show and sold out. I saw alot of families there, and while I did not hear or see any walk-outs. I definitely get the feeling that many parents have not done any research on this film before seeing it. And thats evident on the IMDB board.

    I'm a big Sondheim fan, yet this production seems to have gotten by me somehow. The songs are fabulous, I can't disagree with the casting.
    Although some feel Bernadette Peters reprising her role as the Witch would have been better, Meryl is the star of this show and can sell tickets.

    I hesitate to recommend this as a family film. The PG rating ensures that most of the violence appears off screen. If you go expecting to watch a live action version of Frozen or some other past Disney musical, this is far from it.

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