Into the Woods took me on a fantastical adventure through many timeless fairy tales with added twists and turns. I went into the movie knowing pretty well what to expect, though I did find myself wondering if my fellow audience members knew prior that it was a musical. Not a typical Disney musical that includes a lot of dialogue and contains maybe ten songs sung throughout, but a more traditional musical. As in, the entire movie is sung. Yep, music from top to bottom, barely a word unsung in between. Okay… there is dialogue, but not very much. There’s 20 songs sung in this two hour movie, including the nearly 15 minute opener, aptly titled Prologue: Into the Woods. I’ve already talked to some who are surprised it’s a musical because for some reason Disney decided not to feature the singing in the trailers until closer till the release… tricksters.
Before Disney bought the rights to adapt it into the film, Into the Woods was on Broadway. Stephen Sondheim wrote the music and lyrics, and James Lapine the dialogue. The musical premiered in 1986 in San Diego and on Broadway in 1987, staring Bernadette Peters as the witch, according to Wikipedia (yes, I’m citing Wikipedia). If you want a summary, watch the trailer above.
I saw (most of) the original Broadway version staring Bernadette Peters on DVD before I saw the film. I say most because I, eh-hem, fell asleep half way through. I’m glad I did, though, because it made the ending more of a surprise. The beginning of the movie won’t be much of a surprise to anyone because it contains fairy-tales we’ve mostly heard of brought together to form a new story. Plus most of these tales already have their own full-length movies, so it may even seem a bit redundant at first.
Though the characters’ individual story arches have been told time and again, the overall plot of the film is quite different from what we’ve seen before and it is refreshing. The first half essentially sets up the tales of the Baker and his wife wanting a baby, Jack and his beanstalk, Cinderella and her prince, Little Red Riding Hood’s dealings with the wolf, etc. As these individual story’s come to fruition as we’ve heard them, the last act of the film involves dealing with the aftermath. What’s the price of getting your wish, essentially? The film is guiding by the Witch, played by Meryl Streep, who has a wish of her own and needs the Baker and his wife to help her, promising a baby for them in return.
Toward the end, the story and characters get wonderfully complex and I think this is the highlight of the film. It’s not just about the characters struggling to find their happy ending, but about change. It’s about what happens when you get out in the world and you meet hardships, how you adapt to your problems and face the problems that your problems cause. The theme of the musical is a reflection on personal change, which I found very moving and deeply threaded by using these stories that were originally quite two-dimensional in many ways.
The film takes some dark turns along the way, though not as dark as the original stage musical. I do have give Disney kudos for keeping in some of uncomfortable parts of the original, like the creepy wolf, and some of the deaths. Seeing these moments on screen feels awkward because we’re used to everything being so politically correct. I’ve seen some criticism already about Disney for toning down some of the darkness from the original musical, but it is Disney after all and I’m pretty sure Sondheim saw that coming when he sold Disney the rights.
Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife and Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince won the awards for surprisingly good singers. Both came through in their vocal abilities, especially Pine, who sang what ended up being one of my favorite songs, Agony, with Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince. Now, for the unfortunate portion of the actor bill… Meryl Streep. Streep is one of my all time favorites. Out of Africa is my favorite movie, I think she’s great. Problem is, she can’t really sing. It was fine for Mamma Mia, but this just wasn’t working for me. Having seen Bernadette Peters as the Witch, it’s hard to see anyone else in the role. Peters just has the spunk and energy and humor for the role and, frankly, that’s who they should have cast for the movie. Additionally, if you ever watch the stage version, check out Peter’s crazy on-stage transformation. I don’t know how they do it. It’s a treat… no magical movie editing.
Overall I like the movie, though in the end it gets a bit Disney typical for me by reinforcing some traditional family ideals through Cinderella, played by Anna Kendrick, which I was a bit bummed out by. Like they pushed the envelope, but were afraid to push too far and in the end just did the expected. But that’s enough of that. I would watch the movie again and fully intend to.