Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods is a story about life and maturation in a world where ‘happily ever after’ isn’t so simple or even possible to attain. It’s a lesson that everyone learns as they grow up but Sondheim’s appropriation of fairytale characters such as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood turns a simple life lesson into an interesting examination of the values imbued in us in youth and how those morals and ideas are twisted, changed and sometimes altogether discarded as we grow. Director Rob Marshall takes us from ‘Once upon a time’ and all the way to ‘happily ever after’ and marches past into the strange, sometimes frightening unknowns of life.
The film opens with an introduction to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), the beanstalk climber, and a married couple known only as the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). Cinderella wishes to go to a ball at the royal castle, Little Red is obtaining provisions before she visits her grandmother’s house, Jack is sent off to market in order to sell his beloved cow and the Baker and his wife wish to have a child but are unable to conceive. A dramatic appearance by a mysterious witch (Meryl Streep) sets events in motion as she promises the Baker and his wife that she will lift a curse that is preventing the Baker from being able to have a child. What ties these initially disparate threads together is the focus on the familial relationships that exist in each of these character’s stories as well the married couples’ quest to lift the curse which sets them on a collision course with several fairytale characters.
Into the Woods‘ examination of life and growing up focuses largely on the parent-child bond and the effects that one can have on the other. The film examines its fairytale characters not as standalone protagonists in their own story but as members of a community. In this light no obvious villain emerges as characters such as the Witch and even Cinderella are given more nuanced personalities that defies the traditional black and white fairytale designations. Without a traditional villain archetype the conflict that emerges in the story has more to do with people’s own inner conflicts and the negative effects these inner turmoils can have on others. There are some heady themes explored in the film and it’s fortunate that Disney has allowed Into the Woods’ translation to the big screen to come through with minimal changes from the source material.
Some aspects of Sondheim’s story have been blunted such as the Big Bad Wolf’s predatory song directed at an underage Little Red Riding Hood or the infidelity of several characters (played down in some cases, omitted completely in others) but the themes and original intentions still come across while still being more palatable to a larger, younger audience. Into the Woods isn’t necessarily a kid’s movie. It’s just a movie that kids can enjoy along with their parents. For all of the contemplations of life and loss that the film covers, it is still filled with many humorous elements.
Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s performance of the song ‘Agony’ is a personal highlight as the two princes belt out a self indulgent and hilariously overemotional song about their would-be lovers. The musical numbers play out atop a waterfall as Pine and Magnussen splash across the water and expose their manly chests while they try to one-up each others’ pain. Just about every single musical number in the film is shot in a way that allows the actor’s expressions to accompany the lyrics they’re singing. In the example of ‘Agony’, Pine and Magnussen employ a fair amount of physical comedy to the film’s benefit.
The shooting style of Into the Woods differs greatly from Marshall’s previous film musical ‘Chicago’. Rather than using the fast cuts more typical of a music video, the camera moves, pans and turns with the actors as they perform their songs. There is rarely a still shot in the film but the motion is never excessive and instead feels complimentary to the movements of the actors on screen. Computer generated effects are also used sparingly and the portrayal of certain elements such as a giant rampaging through a fantasy kingdom is shot in a way that, in some scenes, serves as a simulacrum of a what an on stage representation of the musical would actually look like.
While the songs are almost universally enjoyable to listen to and watch performed, a sense of weariness did begin to creep up in the film’s final act. A condensed adaptation of the stage version’s second act sees a giant descend from the beanstalk and begin hunting for Jack. I expected the film to be nearing its finale by the time this new wrinkle was thrown into the plot. Better pacing and a more even distribution of screen time between musical’s two acts may have helped alleviate the sense of fatigue that had begun to creep up. The film does cut some songs from the stage version of the musical and perhaps it is just the nature of translating this story onto the screen that this awkward division of focus between its two acts lent the film a sense of being a touch overlong.
Despite the almost two and a half hour running time, there are still some characters who seemed to get short shrift. Rapunzel’s ultimate fate differs drastically from the stage version and her exit in the story felt out of place and abrupt, especially in the context of knowing the character’s fate in the stage version. Depp’s Wolf felt underused and the relationship between Jack and his mother is only painted in broad strokes.
Marshall’s adaptation of Into the Woods succeeds off the strength of Sondheim’s songs and original story. The film is shot and edited in a way that eschews the fast movements and quick cuts that one might expect from a musical adaptation and instead allows the camera to rest on the actor’s faces as they emote with their faces as well as their voices. Marshall’s screen version retains the visual comedy of the original stage rendition and in some cases (the waterfall setting of ‘Agony’) surpasses what was possible on stage. Into the Woods is a fun, though somewhat overlong musical that entertains while still examining the more realistic aspects of life in our world and in fantasy.