You want to see Disney’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical Into The Woods, but you do not want to see it for the wrong reasons (like I did when I saw it the first time). One wrong reason might be wanting to see Johnny Depp’s performance as the (Big, Bad) Wolf because this role only exists for ten minutes (nothing against the Captain, it’s just not that much of a role). Another wrong reason, believe it or not, might be wanting to soak in all the Meryl Streep as humanly possible. And while she hits all the right notes with her beautiful singing voice, she seems to be enjoying herself just a little too much in such a wicked role.
With that out of the way, Into The Woods is still a captivating experience for all ages with a rarely-accomplished balance of gravity and levity that will keep everyone engaged until the final moments (no matter how well you already know the story). It begins as a mixture of your favorite Grimm stories – Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Giant Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and the Baker and his Wife; it then transforms into a drama as applicable as the Gospel narrative itself. Furthermore, Rob Marshall’s finely-tuned direction almost takes this film a notch higher in almost designing it like a stage production of Sondheim quality – again, a feat seldom achieved. If you’ve ever wanted to feel the magic of live theatre from the comfort of the silver screen, this film is an excellent place to start.
Like I said: don’t be distracted by those two big names; if you want to get the most of the story, you will want to focus on the Baker and his Wife, played sharply by James Corden and Emily Blunt respectively. It’s through the decisions of these characters that the show goes on, and Corden and Blunt are both strong enough to carry that weight. Likewise, look out for Anna Kendrick as Cinderella; sometimes you’ll be reminded of Pitch Perfect, but others, you’ll witness something more enchanting. Also, pay close attention to the children in this film and notice how well they keep up with (and sometimes surpass) the adults. Daniel “Gavroche” Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford each deliver a driving performance of Jack (like the beanstalk) and Little Red Riding Hood respectively; it is a shame that they didn’t get enough screen time together as they could have really rocked it some more. Everyone else in the cast is spot on (special shout-out to Tracey Ullman and Frances de la Tour).
Of course, the music and the songs are just as alive as ever. Sondheim’s own words should conquer any fears you have about the film’s musical chops:
I love the sound of the orchestra; it sounds great. Fans of the show may have heard it with fourteen instruments, but when it’s on film, it’s going to sound lush and spectacular.
One of the disadvantages of adapting such an energetic and all-encompassing story to the screen is that the camerawork occasionally misses some of the good stuff, and this film slightly suffers for having a small bit for such moments. For example, one character may be singing an important line of information, and the camera movement unfortunately robs that actor and his or her momentum of the performance. It’s not so big of a concern that it jeopardizes the film’s integrity; just think of it as a visual representation of a noisy mosquito that you have to keep swiping at.
Even though I first fell in love with the music of Into The Woods, it’s really the story that been sticking with me lately. The first act fulfills the characters pretentious fairy-tale outlines while the second act brings them all to a dramatically-conflicted-yet-keenly-relevant point. After all, everything is practically “happily ever after” until the Giant’s Wife comes down seeking revenge upon the death of her free-falling husband. When that happens, we get to see the characters’ real natures: who would really give up a child for their own life and safety, who would use the canopy and shrubbery of the trees as a platform for a brief tryst with royalty, and (thankfully) who would ultimately come together as a family even though they never started out as such. All of this because of an encounter with something else…something unarguably, undeniably, and falsifiably Other…something that proves to be a stumbling block to existential and moral relativism…something that can serve as a signpost that points to something better and nobler…something that we may be only able to realize once we’ve put away childish things.
Traditionally, the Woods have been used to represent a space in which anything goes. For example, Shakespeare told us that in the woods, young lovers hot with lust and heavy with hormones chase each other while a tribe of nomadic fairies watch from a distance before intervening for comedy’s sake. With Into The Woods, however, Sondheim takes that notion, plays it out to its un-virtuous ends, and leads us to believe that, while getting lost in the woods of one’s own selfishness can be temporarily fun, such frivolity only ends up being detrimental to being truly human, whereas finding union with others is part of the accomplishment of such. Maybe this film can be the catalyst needed to start up this type of discussion with whom it needs to be held: with the children currently growing into adults. Until then, be careful what you wish for.