For part of our Christmas celebration, James and I decided to watch Into the Woods. It was quite an experience, and we were glad we went.
In terms of stated biases, I have only seen this story in amateur productions and high school musicals. Never anything professional. I admire the concept of weaving multiple storylines from familiar stories together, but Into the Woods is not my favorite story overall nor my favorite musical. I should also add that I am not an avid musical fan. So while I may not be overly biased, I may not be as well informed.
Please note that there will be spoilers in this review. I can’t comment on everything, so I will point out the things that drew me in particular.
Premises You Must Accept If You Will Enjoy This Movie
- magic explains everything that is not readily understood
- weaknesses in the original play remain present here
- ham and cheese make this film more palatable (and I mean that as a compliment)
- the story runs wide rather than deep
Acting in General
I’ll get into some of the characters more specifically later. But overall, well done and mostly well cast.
Yes, there were hammy performances, but they fit the tone and the mood. Meryl Streep was stunning from her first appearance to the last. I’ll get to “The Last Midnight” later, but let me say that I was looking forward to that song most of all, and it exceeded my hopes. Daniel Huttlestone was even better here than he was in Les Miserables, and he made an adorable and sympathetic Jack. He was everything a young Jack should be. Chris Pine shocked me with his smarmy Prince Charming and had me cracking up at all the right moments. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife was sympathetic and sweet, and James Corden played the role of the nice guy moving on to make his own path well. Lilla Crawford did so well as the ever hungry and curious Red Riding Hood. I didn’t really have any characters or images in mind when I envisioned this theatrical release, but none of the casting or acting disappointed me really except Cinderella.
All in all, I felt that Into the Woods provided a stronger Jack and the Beanstalk story than Jack the Giant Slayer and will likely be a better Cinderella story than Disney’s upcoming Cinderella. Costuming and set design seemed top notch, though the CGI effects were cheaper looking in the distance shots more than the close-ups.
Wow, Jaw Dropping Meryl Streep
The previews convinced me that Meryl Streep could do this role justice, but the previews in no way did justice to what she did on the big screen. She plays the character well, sometimes slipping into more modern dialogue and sometimes sharing the audience’s perceptions. She scares at the right times, provokes laughs at the right points, and captures the voice of the original play with ease. (I have always felt that most of the story’s momentum dies with the Witch, and this was true especially here.)
My one criticism would be that in the beginning, she is supposed to be ugly. Now, don’t get me wrong. She’s no beauty, but nor is she ugly. She is just Hollywood ugly. Her nails are too long and yellow, her teeth look somewhat nasty, and her hair is wild. But really…she just looks like she needs a bit of a makeover. Given the budget as well as the CGI capabilities, I expected her to look hideous. I’ve looked worse some mornings, I’m afraid, and I have no curse to blame. That said, she does look stunning after her transformation. The blue palette compliments her skin, and I can only hope I look as good at her age.
The part I looked forward to the most was “The Last Midnight.” That’s always been one of my favorite songs from the play, and this rendition was every bit what I hoped and more. She sang it with such energy and passion. The song built and built and built until it delivered its final fatal punch. The lighting, the score, the acting, and the costuming were dramatic, over the top, and every bit what I anticipated. At a few points, my fellow moviegoers were sitting there open mouthed. Between “The Last Midnight” and “Agony,” the movie was worth the price.
All in all, I found every bit of Meryl Streep’s performance enjoyable and riveting. She didn’t just play this role. She poured herself into it, and it showed.
The Big Bad Wolf As Bad As Can Be
I had no idea what to expect with Johnny Depp’s performance. He can turn in stunning performances, and he can sometimes just be strange, odd, and frightening. In this case, well, it was a bit of both, which is what I think he was going for.
The sexual overtones remain in place, though if I recall correctly they have been toned down somewhat. But the somewhat lascivious response the Wolf has toward Red Riding Hood is hard to miss. I suppose one could argue that
there is nothing in it, but all in all, it feels more like a nod to some of the original Red Riding Hood stories. More implication than blatant discussion. But exceptionally uncomfortable to watch.
That said, Johnny Depp gave it his all. From the stalking around the tree to the first “Hello, little girl” to the final howl at the end, he was an unforgettable Wolf. This particular rendition of the song was one I can’t get out of my head. It is disturbing but well blended, punchy and almost cartoonish. It’s quite difficult to describe, but, all in all, it felt like the right choice and it was about on the same level as the Princes’ “Agony” in terms of ham and energy. I would add though that his costume did appear more theatrical and garish compared to the other costumes. My husband, who has more experience with
musicals and plays, said that in most of the other renditions he’s seen, the Wolf wore a fur outfit. Here the Wolf had the look of a more sophisticated Jeff Goldblum’s Wolf from the Three Little Pigs (Fairie Tale Theatre).
Cinderella, Nice But Not Good the Perfect Summary
I always found Cinderella’s story to be one of the more intriguing ones in the original play because it provided fascinating insight into this young woman who remained in such a horrid situation for so long. The fact that Cinderella would actually consider remaining in the abusive home she shared with her stepmother and stepsisters rather than make a choice that might be wrong was intriguing. And promising. The problem though is that Cinderella here fades to the background and seems significantly less important and interesting than the Baker and his wife or any of the other characters.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a beautiful standout moment in the story. The “On the Steps of the Palace” song was so well done. It captured Cinderella’s dilemma as well as her inner struggle and personality. Plus it had more choreography than I anticipated, and the setting itself added to the magical atmosphere. Anna Kendrick played it quite well, singing with emotion and even showing happiness as she made the decision to make no decision and force the Prince to choose.
In fairness, part of Cinderella’s character development is weakened because the story is slammed together in the overall pacing, particularly at the end where Cinderella should be revealed more fully. And her confrontation of the Prince as well as her bidding him farewell is shortened tremendously. There’s no real sense of regret or sadness that the two are split apart or that Cinderella has even lost anything she wants. The loss seemed as inconsequential as losing a shoe. Here I do not blame the actress. The writing in her overall development gave the actress little to work with. The prince’s infidelity seems irrelevant to her and receives less time than her indecisiveness and generally neutral feelings at first.
The stepmother and stepsisters were deliciously awful and hammy. I chuckled to see Lucy Punch in the role of Lucinda. She played almost the
exact same character in Ella Enchanted, and she did it just as well. It was cartoonish and lacking in any sort of nuance, but it was never intended to be nuanced in the first place.
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let’s Change Your End
In the original play, Rapunzel has nervous breakdowns, gives birth to twins, and ultimately dies as her prince goes on to pursue another fairy tale princess. In the movie, however, she and her prince ride off after the witch gives her warning. There’s no indication that anything bad happens to Rapunzel and her prince. We see nothing of her or her prince ever again. There is only the witch’s warning that she should have listened and that the world is dangerous.
Now…I suppose that it could be said we don’t know that Rapunzel didn’t die. Something terrible might have happened to her. But, in my opinion, Rapunzel’s apparent happy ending really cuts away at the deeper meaning of the original play, which was that there was no such thing as a happily ever after. Her story line was not developed enough to suggest that there is hope for a happy ending after all (though it seems that that must be what the aim was). But neither is it dark or bleak. It just feels unfinished. Or as if the producers were concerned that the real Rapunzel story told in Into the Woods would be too dark. Admittedly, it is dark, but it added a great deal to the tone and motivation.
Personally, I think this change was a misstep. Rapunzel’s demise demonstrated the validity of the Witch’s w
arning. Plus the prince’s philandering ways painted such a bleak and sorrowful end to her that it underscored Sondheim’s original point. Without that change, Rapunzel seems unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the song “Stay with Me.” Meryl Streep did a beautiful emotional job with it. But just about every other purpose that Rapunzel served could be met through altering the story further and without further loss of the story’s integrity.
Sometimes a happy ending is worse than a sad or tragic one when it is forced. It’s even sadder when the story just feels unfinished. It makes the point less clear, and even if life may be that way, the ambiguity hurts the story and overall flow and purpose.
Agony…From Laughing Hysterically
One of the downsides of watching primarily high school renditions of Into the Woods is that most high school students do not have the chutzpah and confidence to pull off the roles of the princes. They are a special pair, aren’t they? So full of themselves and so confused by the women they wish to claim. Well…Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen deliver on every aspect, right
down to the demonstrated competitiveness and rivalry between the two.
The song “Agony” is one of the best in the film. It had the audience laughing at several points as the two brothers strive to outdo one another in a well choreographed dance scene beside and over a river. There’s tearing of the shirts, heaving of the chests, arching of the eyebrows, deepening of the voices, and flinging of the arms. It’s overdramatic, cheesy, hammy, and utterly splendid.
Similarly his song with the Baker’s Wife is quite over the top as well, though it does feel more like he is pushing her into something she is not all together comfortable with. The parallels between the Wolf and Red with the Prince and the Baker’s Wife would be interesting, but that’s another discussion.
Chris Pine’s Prince though also vanishes from the story too soon. His pursuit of yet another fairy tale princess after he leaves Cinderella and enjoys the Baker’s wife demonstrates his shallowness in the play. That’s cut though. While he does share some passionate kisses with the Baker’s Wife, he does not take on another princess later. Here, he and Cinderella share a brief conversation after she learns that he cheated on her. And while Pine delivers the line “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” with fantastic personality, the scene ends too quickly. He, like Rapunzel’s prince, disappears after this
. We do not see him again with his newest conquest, and there is no reprise of the famed “Agony.”
Don’t get me wrong. What scenes he does have, Chris Pine wrings out every drop of humor and hamminess, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. He was just ushered out far too fast, and the smarminess and point could have been better developed through that final closing sequence.
An Intriguing Though Feeling Unfinished Tapestry
Into the Woods has never been one of my favorite musicals, and my initial opinion of Into the Woods was that it started out with an intriguing premise but didn’t really tie up the ends in the most satisfying of ways. Many things are left unexplained, whether through lack of time, carelessness, or just because. The pacing in the Second Act in particular has always felt off to me, and I wanted certain things explained more. Yet those weaknesses have not kept me from enjoying it or the music. I had hoped though that the movie would address some of those weaknesses. Perhaps add another layer to the characters or reveal more subtleties. There are so many opportunities afforded to a movie that are not in an onstage production.
The movie, however, does not take the opportunity to clean up the story and make it more coherent or establish stronger characters. Instead, it plays it quite safe and softens some of the original plot line to make it more palatable for a younger audience that probably won’t even be interested in it. As a result, it actually lost something of itself without providing something more enjoyable or even something that felt like a coherent whole. I’ve already discussed Rapunzel and the princes. But some of the changes made deviated from the play in other ways unrelated to making it more family friendly (an arguable endeavor).
The pacing is what draws my attention most. The First Act seems to take up the majority of the movie with the plot threads set up and the characters established, even if it is only briefly. But there does not appear to be much of a passage of time between the First Act and the Second Act. The characters’ positions after thinking that they have attained their happy endings are rushed. In fact, they are thrown back into the action after what seems like perhaps a day. The Baker’s Wife is made instantly pregnant and looks ready to deliver after the curse is lifted, and the baby himself has no age reference. It does not feel as if any time has passed at all. Cinderella’s unhappiness and boredom as well as the Baker’s struggle to connect with his son are all rushed, and I entirely missed Jack’s desire to return to the sky, if that was even part of the movie’s second act at all. As a result, it feels quite rushed. The last half hour in particularly are quite bad comparatively and left me feeling unsatisfied.
Overall Worth a Watch
Even with the changes and the weaknesses, the movie is worth a watch. Some of the performances are stunning, and there was a great deal of heart put into it. It feels very much like a Disneyfied movie version of a play. If you enjoy any of the primary actors or if you like revisionist fairy tales or if you appreciate musicals, I recommend you watch it.
I have seen it advertised for families with children though, and I would add one caveat. It isn’t really a kid friendly movie. Not because of the dark themes but because of the pacing. Young children will likely find it boring. And the latter half is particularly slow by comparison. Most of the violence occurs off screen or is implied. (The death of Jack’s mother, for instance, was handled in such a way that at first I wasn’t sure if she was actually dead or even how she died.)
It’s a shame because I think that a work more closely following the original or expanding upon the original’s themes would have worked better here. The actors possessed the necessary skills. The sets supported the endeavors, but sadly the woods were far tamer and less dangerous than they might have once appeared.