Before getting into the nitty-gritty, I must apologize for being horrendously inactive. I’ve had all sorts of potential post opportunities that I’ve been excited for, and they all got swept away by school, family, and general stress. However, I am hopefully here to stay for a while. And to get back, a brief discussion of Disney’s Into the Woods, which I saw a couple weeks ago and is probably old hat to most of you by now. Nonetheless, have some thoughts on the house.
The Basics (A Brief Discussion of Why I Love This Musical)
From the talented minds of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine comes Into the Woods, a musical about family, growing up, moving on, and the cost of finding what we think we want. “Wishes come true, not free,” after all. This film adaptation of a stage musical features the fairy tale characters we meet as children and watch change as we grow old: Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Jack and his Giants, Rapunzel, Cinderella, the princes Charming (there are two), an everyman Baker who embarks on a quest with his Wife, and, as needed by every tale, a Witch. All have wishes to pursue, and the first half is devoted to the hunt, their stories intertwining and quests overlapping until they reach their happy endings. Of course, the second half reveals the consequences of their wishes with a swift transition from a fairly light-hearted romp to a dark examination of consequence, responsibility, and the weight of our past. The production takes the familiar and transforms it into something new.
A Brief Overview of an Impressively Large and Famous Ensemble Cast
James Corden and Emily Blunt star as the Baker and his Wife, a lovely couple with sparkling chemistry, serious acting chops, and a desperate longing to be parents. Their journey to break the curse preventing them from having children is the overarching story that connects all the others.
Meryl Streep is the Witch who cursed the Baker’s family with a barren family tree. She is powerful (and knows it), gleefully vindictive, monstrously clever, and an amazing singer.
Anna Kendrick strikes the perfect line between romantic dreamer and determined individualist as Cinderella, the kind girl mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, yet who nonetheless manages to woo a prince.
Mackenzie Mauzy plays Rapunzel, a ward of the Witch who carries on secret liaisons with her own prince. Her role in the film is reduced from that of the play, but nonetheless, her relationship with the Witch will feel familiar to anyone who’s clashed with their parents on the trials of growing up.
Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen play our Princes, a charming (though not sincere) duo that enliven the action with their antics and who share a duet, “Agony,” that qualifies as a top highlight.
Rounding out the main cast are Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford, the young Jack and Red Riding Hood, whose stories hold some new surprises and who have voices and acting personality on par with the adult cast.
Finally, a special shout-out to Johnny Depp for his unique portrayal of the Big Bad Wolf and nice voice.
An Attempt at Unbiased Critique:
As might be clear, I have been a huge fan of Into the Woods since before Disney decided to adapt it to the silver screen. Though Disney’s film version is not flawless, much of it does keep to the heart of the original production, and I respect that.
So let me start by praising what deserves praise. The score, a deal-breaking component of any musical, receives a minor facelift to match the revised lyrics and pacing, but also remains incredibly catchy. Meanwhile, the actors shine in their singing roles. For some this is hardly a surprise; Daniel Huttlestone’s previous role as Gavroche in Les Miserables had us well prepared for his revelation about “Giants in the Sky,” but did anyone really expect Chris Pine, probably best known as Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek movies, to have such a beautiful set of pipes? As mentioned above, Pine and Magnussen share a show-stopping duet, “Agony,” that is truly anything but agony to listen to. Additionally, the actors show great emotional depth and nail the shifting tones of the film.
While accolades are easily heaped onto the actors for their acting and musical prowess, other aspects of the film don’t fare quite so well. Some song sequences feel thrown together, like they were not sure what to do with them. For example, Little Red’s “I Know Things Now” takes us on a trip into the Big Bad Wolf’s belly that feels like a badly CGI’d fall into Wonderland. One of the perks of film is the ability to add visual effects, but this one falls flat. The power of Into the Woods comes from the changing emotions and wishes of its characters; when the movie gets too flashy, it detracts from its greatest strength.
Furthermore, the pacing tends to feel rushed, though this is understandable considering the amount of story it condenses. Nonetheless, the movie can feel like it hops around, and moments that deserve more weight get glossed over. The transition between the first and second half of the movie suffers because of this swift pacing. The characters have little time to live with their “happy endings,” and thus have no time to discover if it is what they truly want. However, in my opinion, the strongest example of this negligence is the reappearance of the Baker’s father. In the stage production, this reunion comes with its own introspective song. The movie reduces their meeting to an unexplained and confusing few seconds that loses a lot of heft and could ultimately be removed.
Though the execution of the film at times lacks, the story and meaning of Into the Woods is still there in all of its humanity and reality. There is still family and redemption and discovery, delivered with brilliant emotion and in stunning song. It is a good adaptation, and a decent film in its own right.