Review: Into the Woods


“Into the woods to get the thing
That makes it worth the journeying.
Into the woods to see the King–
To sell the cow–
To make the potion…
To go to the Festival–!
Into the woods!
Into the woods!
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods…
And home before dark!”

–Prologue: Into the Woods


“Into the Woods,” Rob Marshall’s filmic adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s classic stage musical of the same name, is an amalgamation of fairy tales, both old and new, put under a contemporary scrutiny.


The story revolves largely around the unnamed “Baker” and “Baker’s Wife” whose desperate wish for a child drives them to enter the eponymous Woods to gather potion ingredients for their neighbor, the Witch. They learn that, as a result of a wrong the Baker’s father did to the Witch, she cursed his household with sterility–a curse that can only be lifted if the couple can make the potion for the Witch by the end of the Blue Moon in three days time.


Also entering into the Woods to achieve their aims, are Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack the Giant Killer.Their stories play out pretty much as you might expect, and by the end of the first half, all that was wrong is now put right, with everyone who deserved it, destined to live Happy Ever After…


…Or at least until the second act, in which we learn that real life is rarely as simple or pat as that in fairy tales.


“Into the Woods” faces the always-interesting challenge of translating a stage play into a film–a medium very different in what it showcases well and what it does not. The intimacy of the close-up and realism of location shooting require a different sort of storytelling than that of the Broadway stage, and some of the changes made reflect that. The bulk of the musical numbers survive into the film with the ones eliminated referencing character traits or story details that didn’t make the screenplay. As an example, the song “No More,” resolving the issues between the Baker and his Father in the play, becomes less necessary when the character of the Father was largely removed. One of my personal favorites, “Maybe They’re Magic,” from the first half, may have been taken out in an attempt to make the Baker’s Wife less morally ambiguous, although there is then less foreshadowing for some of her more questionable decisions later in the story.


The cast does an admirable job with the score, which is as challenging as a Sondheim score usually is. The songs seem sung a little slower than in the original soundtrack, however that might be more for increasing the clarity for the audience than a lack of musical adroitness. Meryl Streep is the star, and even if you have not quite forgiven her for dissing Walt Disney earlier this year, there is no denying that she possesses the part of the Witch with a vengeance. Johnny Depp as the Wolf manages to make a big impression with a relatively small part, and somehow seems less creepy in an outfit one moviegoer described as “part wolf and part pimp,” than he did as Willy Wonka.


Child roles are always problematic, and the parts of Red Riding Hood and Jack can sometimes be played gratingly irritating, but Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone do a phenomenal job of making the parts likeable and understandable. Crawford in particular gives Red a nice element of pragmatism that is mirrored in all the other female characters of the story, as opposed to the generally less effective male characters.


If there’s one number you’re going to remember, however, it’s likely to be Chris (Cinderella’s Prince) Pine and Billy (Rapunzel’s Prince) Magnussen’s “Agony,” in which the narcissistic, shallow princes bewail the unusual and novel (for them) tortures of not immediately getting what they want. Tearing up the scenery like male models in an Old Spice commercial, they do a hilarious performance that makes the elimination of the second act reprise a crime.


The main flaw of “Into the Woods” the film, is probably the same flaw of “Into the Woods” the play, which is the mildly unsettled second act. The first half, following the traditional fairy tale molds, has a nice traditional storytelling arc that wraps up all the problems neatly. The second half shows the rapid unraveling of those ends, as “happy ever after” is shown to be largely an illusion. In one sense, the film is a victim of its more visually straightforward nature, as a confrontation with a giant, dealt with more or less off-stage in the original, must be shown and proves to be somewhat puzzling as to how it would practically work. There has also always been some incongruity present in the end, as in the big finale “No One is Alone,” the cast sings about how “witches can be right/giants can be good…” but apparently it’s ok to kill them anyway?


People who study such things note that in fairy tales, the Woods represents a place of metamorphosis–an unknown territory where people enter on the road to maturation, to discover what they want and who they want to be. All the characters of “Into the Woods” walk in with clearly defined wishes and goals and emerge triumphant at the half-way point. But what happens after? Real Life doesn’t just stop after you reach a high-water mark–it keeps marching along, messy and unclear and ambiguous, and perhaps it’s fitting after all, that the film’s ending is equally inconclusive.


Ultimately, there are many different messages that can be taken away from “Into the Woods:” “You can’t get what you want until you know what you want;” “being nice and good is not the same as being right;” “all people are connected on some level;” “wishes come true, not free.” Perhaps the most practical one I took away was “don’t live next door to a witch.”

“Into the Woods” is rated PG. It stars Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lilla Crawford, and Johnny Depp.

“Into the woods, each time you go,
There’s more to learn of what you know.
Into the woods, but not too slow–“

Directed by Rob Marshall and produced by John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt, and Callum McDougal. Screenplay by James Lapine. Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

“Into the woods to mind the Wolf,
To heed the Witch,
To honor the Giant…
To go to the Festival!
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods–
And happy ever after!”

The film enters general release on December 25, 2014.

“I wish…”

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Jeanine resides in Southern California, pursuing the sort of lifestyle that makes her the envy of every 11-year-old she meets. She has been to every Disney theme park in the world and while she finds Tokyo DisneySea the Fairest Of Them All, Disneyland is her Home Park... and there is no place like home.

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