After I saw this as a theatre production at my old college, I pondered for a while as to how it would be as a movie. Well, fast forward a couple years and Disney’s adaptation has been released. This version of the film stays pretty true to the original stage play by Stephen Sondheim. Into the Woods was originally released in 1986, before becoming a sensation across numerous theatres around the world throughout the ’90s and “turn of the millennium.”
Personally, I was never a huge fan of the original play nor of most stage musicals in general. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to see this adaptation, but it’s rare I go out to see musical based films. That said a mixture of joining my family for a movie during the holidays as well as supporting local acting talent (i.e. Meryl Streep hails from my hometown) were among primary reasons. While some might argue this automatically disqualifies me from reviewing this film entirely (as many aficionados hailing from YouTube comments, various blog sites, and other sources of opinions may proclaim), I’m still a film viewer full of opinions that I’m willing to share. So, let’s take a trip Into The Woods!
To summarize Into the Woods, the story is broken up into two acts. In the first act, we have all sorts of faerie tale stories slowly crossing over into one giant story; a baker couple cursed for a father’s sins, red riding hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, among others. The first segment of the film is a bundle of stories in an almost anthology style. While existing within the same universe, the bakers’ tale is the primary focus. They must nab 4 items from various faerie tale characters in order to undo a curse placed upon them by a witch. Just like in the play, it was played up as a sort of whacky look at the stories we’ve come to know and love; albeit, with some darker undertones throughout. One of the things that truly interested me was how the narrative didn’t end during the “Happily Ever After” cliche Disney segment. This truly makes the fact that Disney tackling this adaptation even more amusing! After the “First Act” where everyone’s happy, the consequences of their actions catch up to them. The story arcs sort of meld together as each character takes part in the events leading up to the final arc, leading to the remaining characters blaming each other for their certain doom. However, the jarring switch between absurd faerie tale to Game of Thrones really warps the narrative by creating an emotional whiplash. This was a problem I’ve had with the original play. Deconstruction of classic tales is fine, but it still seemed that the story wanted to jump in a radical direction after a certain point.
For those who’ve seen the original play, the composition and songs are pretty much composed of the original pieces, with a couple new works made by both Sondheim and Disney. These new songs fit into the changes brought in to make the film better fit a family film audience. For example, Mr. Wolf’s direct sexual predator undertones were severally cut down in favor of Johnny Depp playing a black & white stripes with bad hair character that Depp has become infamous for. Granted, I’m perfectly fine with the disturbing nature of Mr. Wolf being altered for a general audience, but they could have worked the character a little more than a Depp type cast. Now, I don’t hate Depp at all, he’s a fine actor! (Hell, some of my favorite movies star him as an important or lead role.) But I digress, this was probably a move for the better otherwise.
While Depp did a pretty good job, Streep really sold the performance for me. Her take on the witch was fantastic from multiple angles! Her songs were devious and dramatic, her character was rendered mad from her obsession of reclaiming her former glory, and her rage could be felt far beyond the woods itself.
Also, I’m kinda puzzled by the alteration of Rapunzel’s arc, complete with new song. In the original version, she became frantic after the Giant attack and fled to the woods for safety, due to the stress of life as well as from her abusive adopted mother. Instead of trying to find the others, she continues fleeing until the giant squashes her. In the movie, she was exiled to some weird swamp land full of snakes everywhere. Her and her prince get some cheesy happy ending, including her deus-ex-machina tears healing the curse that blinded the prince in the first place. After this scene, they aren’t really brought up again. In an attempt to alter the play’s original take, we get a half baked arc with an unsatisfying and cheap conclusion to me. Come to think of it, this alteration cut out a disturbingly hilarious exchange between the two princes. In that segment of the original play, the princes meet up again with a reprise of “Agony”. Here, they exchange how they found two sleeping women (Oh god!) who are Sleeping Beauty and Snow White; meaning they don’t need Cinderella and Rapunzel anymore… But hey, that’s fickle and horny monarchs for you! Granted, that carries some seriously fucked up overtones, not even undertones.
Also, I found it interesting that in the Disney version the witch decided to help them in the end. In the original, the characters bickering over “whose to blame” drives the which crazy, so she tosses the magic beans she had stored away and vanishes to leave our cast to their dilemma. That said, her turning into a puddle of goop which was set up for the giant falling to demise (like last time) seemed really strange to me. Instead of her leaving the characters in their time of need, she becomes a plot device. While I wasn’t too fond of the sudden grim-darkness of the original play, this felt like a contrived way to wrap up the plot. In the end, we don’t have our narrator breaking the fourth wall with a snarky witch, but the baker gathering everyone around to console them after a traumatic experience. To be honest, I rather liked that ending over the original, where life sucks and that’s it.
In terms of effects, it was a mixed bag. The effects, both digital and practical, for the witch really helped add to the “magic” of the movie so to speak. Her transformation into her former “beautiful self” was both ominous and awesome, like the character herself. Nothing else truly stuck out to me in terms of visual effects. Almost everything else looks like it was lifted from the relatively recent “Alice In Wonderland” movie, which didn’t appeal at all. That said, the only thing that really took me out was the CG segments of the Giantess. It looked so blurry, mushed, and video game-like; to say the least.
Now, much like the original, this film carries some very interesting themes. True to the faerie tale style, this adaptation has themes of the consequences of pursuing happiness without second thought. When the characters tried to indulge themselves with whatever they thought would make things better, they completely ignored what could happen as a result. The baker’s ineptness costs him his wife and several friends. Riding Hood’s tendency to be distracted nearly leads to her demise, and debatebly helps cause the demise of others. Jack’s greed results in angry giants getting their revenge, as well as the loss of his mother in the end. All in all, these characters allowed their passions to overtake their rational thought. What really sells this theme is the foils to the story; the giants, the witch, and the other characters themselves! When it all comes together, they nearly destroy themselves over blame.
While musicals have never been my thing and I just can’t get past Sondheim’s 180 of the plot, this was an enjoyable enough movie. If you’re fond of this type of film, you’ll certainly like it yourself. If this isn’t your type of film, there’s bound to be something to hold your interest. I’m certainly in the latter camp, but I found this picture to still be worth seeing. Into The Woods gets 6.5 hex-infused dramatic ballads out of 10 from me.