© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Germany GmbH

Into the Woods
U.S.A./U.K./Canada 2014

Opening 19 Feb 2015

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Writing credits: James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim
Principal actors: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, James Corden, Emily Blunt

As one of the most beloved musicals by Stephen Sondheim, there are a lot of expectations riding on the release of the film adaptation of Into the Woods. The stage musical is dark, humorous, cheeky, and, at times, touching. That Disney decided to take on this challenge was certainly surprising, but the end result was not an overall failure. However, undoubtedly avid fans of the musical will have numerous problems with the end results.

Into the Woods takes place in a magical world where many major fairytales collide. When a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are told by their neighbor, a witch (Meryl Streep), that in order to a break a curse on their family they will have to collect a number of items within three days, they go on a quest into the woods to find them. Also in the woods are Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his cow, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), their respective princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and the Wolf (Johnny Depp). All of these characters eventually become mixed up together as the Baker and his wife complete their tasks.

It is clear that the filmmakers were trying to make a compromise between the casual viewer and the fans of the musical, and while the film is very true to the original score and staging of the stage musical, there have been some cuts made. Some of these cuts are minor, but disappointing (no more Narrator), and others lead to more major problems (changing the part of Rapunzel entirely). Some of the changes were obviously done because of the Disney imagine. The change to Rapunzel in particular seems to be done because of the Disney image. In the musical she is banished to a desert for sleeping with her prince, gives birth to twins, goes insane, and eventually gets killed by a giant. In the film, she gets banished to a bog in the woods and runs off with her Prince for a happily-ever-after. As Rapunzel’s character is deeply entwined with that of the Witch, changing her part means that much of the emotion and humor utilized in the songs sung by the Witch are directly affected. Also Little Red Riding Hood’s character is portrayed much more innocently than in the play, where her interaction with the Wolf is an obvious metaphor for sexual awakening. This is completely downplayed in the film, making the scene far less humorous.

If there was one major criticism to be made about Into the Woods it is that it has somehow lost its cheeky and dark humor. Partly this seems to be due to Disney’s influence, where the more problematic scenes were changed or cut, but it also is because of the acting. The roles of the Witch and the Baker’s Wife are really the most important in the whole musical. Both have the most beautiful songs which have an undercurrent of humor. However, Streep and Blunt both fail to bring this humor to their roles. Perhaps this was a stylistic choice or maybe it’s just a sign of their lack of comedic chops, but regardless it is the most disappointing aspect of the film version.

To conclude, this adaptation is perfectly acceptable if a little bland. The fun of Into the Woods lies in the ability of the actors to show the nuances of their roles. In some instances, this wasn’t possible because the actors were not capable of comedic subtlety, and in others it was a direct result of some of the cuts that occurred to save time. Without the comedic undertones, the musical loses much of what makes it truly magical. That being said, this adaptation is probably as good as one could be considering the complexity of the source material, and it is certainly not a poor choice for those who love musical films, although it is perhaps still too mature for younger audiences. (Rose Finlay)

Second Opinion

Be careful what you wish for, particularly when you go into woods shrouded with mystical moxie that seems to change people. Poor Cinderella (Kendrick) desperately wants to go to the Festival, but stepmom and stepsisters (Baranski, Punch, Blanchard) contrive against her. Just as the baker (Corden) and his barren wife (Blunt) give bread and sweets to a plump, scrumptious little girl (Crawford) for her grandmother living in the woods. Taking these to granny, she meets a wily well-dressed wolf (Depp). Two Princes (Pine, Magnussen), each searching out his lovely damsel, trot about following leads – a lost slipper, a silky voice. Whereas Milky-white has been dry so long, the widow (Ullman) sends her son (Huttlestone) to the village to sell. Instead, Jack trades her for magic beans, silly boy. But not as silly as the blonde (Mauzy) living in the doorless tower whose witchy mom (Streep) is the only one she lets down her hair for. Or so mom thinks.

Stephen Sondheim (music, lyrics) and James Lapine’s (story, screenplay) award winning musical opened on Broadway in 1986. It intertwines choice Brothers Grimm fairy tales with an original story involving a childless couple that carries a Witch’s curse she will lift only if they follow her commands. Inevitably, on their quest for four items, the couple meets and interacts with the other characters; everyone is after something in the forest. Directing the adaptation for the silver screen is Rob Marshall. The stellar cast irrepressibly embodies their characters. The woods character, intrinsic to the story, is brought to life through production designer Dennis Gassner’s combining “extremely old trees” in England’s Windsor Great Park and Queen’s Park with a Shepperton Studios set. Andrew Bennett, Ben Collins, Chris Lowe and Mary Mackenzie’s art direction, Anna Pinnock’s set decoration, Colleen Atwood’s costume design, and the makeup department add to the frighteningly beautiful and enviable milieu captured by Dion Beebe’s cinematography, and Wyatt Smith’s editing. “Careful the wishes you make, careful the tales you tell…”; pay attention as there is a lot of common sense advice tucked in this engaging modern morality musical. (Marinell Haegelin)

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