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
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.
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-