Into the Woods: a magical, musical, praiseworthy adaptation

into the woods

Fair warning: this review is likely to be a little biased. Why? Because this is quite possibly my favorite musical of all time. Some of you may already know this, but I was a bit of a theatre geek growing up. A good chunk of my middle and high school years involved spending time in the auditorium after school, running lines and singing songs and trying to make theatrical magic. During my freshman year, I was lucky enough to be cast in this Stephen Sondheim masterpiece. It was pretty much love at first rehearsal.

What’s really fun and interesting about Into the Woods is it’s a mishmash of a bunch of different fairy tales that intertwine in really cool ways. The music is often complex and/or lively, but there are few calmer, softer numbers thrown in to even things out. The first act is, for the most part, all rainbows and butterflies, but the second act takes a surprisingly dark turn. All of these factors have made Into the Woods a big favorite among theatre lovers, yet this movie adaptation has actually rubbed a lot of diehard fans the wrong way. Personally, I don’t see their beef. To me, this adaptation is almost perfect.

Synopsis: “A witch tasks a childless baker and his wife with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.” Borrowed from my favorite movie site, IMDb

into the woods 2

The Good: My compliments to the cast. I have to say, when I saw so many big names in this musical, I was more than a little worried about the quality of the songs. As someone who has experienced it firsthand, I can testify to the fact that Sondheim music is tough stuff to master. Fortunately, these actors weren’t just put in to be big names—they can sing. As stars of other musical movies, I knew Meryl Streep (the Witch) and Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) would be alright, but who knew Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince) could sing like that?! Where the heck did James Corden (the Baker) come from and how did he get that voice?! And EMILY FREAKING BLUNT (the Baker’s Wife). Like, is there anything that girl can’t do?! Of course, this is all without mentioning talented little newbies Daniel Huttlestone (Jack) and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood), who both shine in large roles. Aside from one little blip (which I’ll discuss later), I thought the cast was very strong. I already talked about some of the things that make this musical so great—the story, the music, the dark twists—and the film pulls all that off very well. It’s also very funny and even moving when it needs to be. The visuals are impressive—just what you’d expect from a big, Disney fantasy. But let’s get to the part that might alienate me from the theatre diehards: I thought this film was very true to the source. Believe it or not, that’s actually kind of a controversial statement because so many theatre people have absolutely lost it over this film. I know some things were tweaked or taken out altogether (I’ll discuss a little of that later, too), but I didn’t feel that any of these changes compromised the original story. Also, I’ll bring up a point that many defenders of this film have addressed: the man behind the musical himself supported these changes. If Sondheim doesn’t have a problem with it, why should we? It’s not like the film was completely Disneyfied, which was one of my fears. The film captures the essence of what makes the musical so great. I call that a win.

Favorite Scene: The princes (Pine and Billy Magnussen) sing “Agony,” constantly trying to one-up each other in expressing their torment. Simply put, it is hilarious. Have I mentioned how much I love Chris Pine in this movie? Because he really does win.

into the woods 3

The Bad: So I mentioned that great cast, right? For me, here’s the one piece that didn’t fit: Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing him as this same type of predictably quirky character. Maybe it’s because I’m kind of annoyed that such a minor role has top billing simply because Depp is Depp. Maybe it’s because in the musical the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince are usually played by the same actor, and I wish the film had stayed true to that because it draws interesting parallels. Whatever the case, I wish Depp hadn’t been cast in this. And, of course, as a longtime fan of this show, I can’t help lamenting a few of the lost songs. Not using the princes’ reprise of “Agony” is a wasted opportunity for more laughs. Jack’s farewell to his cow, “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” would’ve been adorable from little Huddlestone. Corden has a great voice, and I wish he could have showcased it with the Baker’s big song, “No More.” But these are minor things. Other than that, I’ll just say that non-theatre people might not enjoy it as much as everyone else, which is pretty standard when it comes to musicals, I suppose. Also, did anyone else think Disney’s marketing for this was way weird? They barely played any music during the trailers at all. A few people I asked weren’t even aware that it was a musical. Kind of sneaky, no?

Least Favorite Scene: In the original musical, the Baker’s Father serves as the narrator for the show, but the film simply uses the Baker for the task. I was fine with that…until the Baker’s Father (Simon Russell Beale) randomly showed up at the end. After the tweaks, I really didn’t see the need for the character. He’s just a throw-in. Why bother?

To Sum It Up: I am very, very happy with how this film turned out. In fact, it might just have become my favorite film adaptation of a musical ever. The cast is fantastic, the tone spot-on, the music as undeniably fun as any stage version—it all just works. Highly recommended for fans of the show or of musical theatre in general. Same goes for fantasy/fairy tale fans. Might be a roll of the dice for everyone else, but if you’re curious, I’d say give it a go.

My Grade: A-

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29 thoughts on “Into the Woods: a magical, musical, praiseworthy adaptation

  1. Agreed on all accounts! This is probably my favorite musical as well, and I was scared the movie wouldn’t do it justice. So glad they made a great adaptation!

    I think the appearance of the baker’s father was necessary since they kept referring to him (and the baker’s fears of becoming him). But it’s strange that they included him for a brief glimpse instead of doing “No More.” I feel that that song would’ve given a stronger resolution to the baker’s emotional arc than the brief scene they ended up with.

    As dark as the show is, it’s also terribly funny. I felt like the film version could’ve played some of the jokes a bit harder; but it could be that I am just used to the line-readings from the OBC in the PBS version.

    Overall, great film adaptation and wonderful review! 🙂

    • Aw thanks so much! Yeah I guess with all of the mentions of the Baker’s Father they kind of did need to show him, huh? “No More” definitely would’ve been the way to do that. Shame. And I suppose the humor could’ve been played up more, yeah, but I was still very happy with it. Thrilled to see someone else enjoyed it quite a bit, too! 🙂

  2. OMG, just saw this today and HATED, HATED it.

    don’t know if you’ll still be my friend after my review of this goes up in the next few days.

    I’m at least glad someone enjoyed the two hours spent watching this 🙂

  3. Brad’s Rule: if it ain’t got Gene Kelly in it, a musical is not worth th sit-thro.
    Anyway, this doesn’t have Woody Allen singing in it so may yet wander in…
    Hey, Cara! Is there a fate worse than Depp? LOL!
    Cheers!

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed it!! 🙂 I saw this movie with friends, who actually do love the musical and they weren’t fans of the film adaptation. They mostly had issues with how they cut the narrator’s part as well the changes with Rapunzel. Honestly, I thought those were pretty minor, so they didn’t affect me as much. I thought the film was a wonderful adaptation of the stage musical. It did seem to lose it’s flow midway through the film, but the cast was excellent. Sort of wish they expanded the role of the Wolf cause I loved Johnny Depp in the role, but that wouldn’t stick to the original play now would it? lol!

    • Hey, lady! Glad to hear you enjoyed this one, too! I agree–I think the changes were minor enough that it wasn’t a big deal. Especially the Rapunzel stuff since she never really seemed like a big deal to me. I can understand your friends’ frustration with the narrator stuff. I wish that had been slightly different. As for Depp…eh. I think I’m just over him in this kind of role. Lol. Although I do kind of wish they’d stuck to the original in regards to the Prince and the Wolf being the same actor. I’d like to see Pine’s Wolf… 🙂

  5. Yeah I didn’t get this the way you did. I thought it was long an tedious and the some of the characters’ behaviour was a bit bipolar. But then I’m really not a musical fan so it would have had to work very hard to win me over.

    • Haha yeah it’s definitely not for everyone. And my fondness for the stage version might have blinded me to some of its faults. Either way,sorry you didn’t have as much fun with this one!

  6. Great job here, and WOW, you liked this one huh? Well, I will see it at some stage I am sure, just no idea when. Depp… it breaks my heart. He is such a talented actor that seems to be stuck in a rut. I am starting to wonder if he is ever going to come out of it :/

  7. I keep ALMOST going to see this. I like the occasional musical but know nothing whatsoever about this one. One question – is it suitable for a 5-year-old who doesn’t scare easily & loves fairy tales??

    • Oh I would think so. I did look at the IMDb Parents Guide, and they recommend 8 or 9, but I can’t think of anything that’s all that scary. There are a few things that are sad, but Disney doesn’t let it get too heavy. You guys should go!!

      …Although if you hate it, I didn’t say that–Hard Ticket to Home Video did. Lol. (Brad gave a really positive review over there, too.)

  8. I remember hearing a lot about this one but never getting around to seeing it. I remember once starring in a production of Into the Woods at the Mysterious Man (I wore all-black, because apparently that’s mysterious). Of course seeing as it was a Grade 4 production it was heavily abridged, cut out a lot of major scenes, and pretended the story ended after the first act (we weren’t even told that there WAS a second act until after the final performance).

    Seeing as this was Disney, I has some uncertainties as to whether they were actually going to do the whole play or just the first half (and then ignore the depressing second half which undoes the happy ending of Act I and kills off 98% of the cast). I should probably see it at some point just to see if it is worth it.

    • LOL. Wow, I’m surprised they had kids that young doing Into the Woods! That’s some complicated music for young ‘uns! If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure our Mysterious Man wore all black, too, and this was in high school. 😉 I really enjoyed this one. If you’re curious, I’d definitely say give it a go!

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