Into the Woods is without doubt my favourite musical of all time. I consider it a masterpiece of story telling. The characters are wonderful, the score is flawless, there’s a perfect blend of comedy and drama and the story is beyond ingenious. It’s also pretty much the only time I will ever admit to being an original cast snob. The DVD recording of the original Broadway cast remains one of my most beloved possessions.
The movie was stuck in development hell for years, but when it was finally announced for a 2014 release, I had mixed feelings. On one hand I was excited at the thought of seeing this show being immortalised in cinematic form. On the other hand, I was apprehensive. With a show this good, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Plus, this is a very hard adaptation to pull of since the musical is so theatrical, and has the advantage of an intermission.
However, the movie had a stellar cast (so I thought) and the director of Chicago at the helm, so I put any preconceived notions behind, and went to see the movie. And what did I get? A mixed bag. There were some elements that were done perfectly, and other elements that didn’t even make it up to bat. It’s definitely not the best musical movie but there was still so much the filmmakers got right. And overall, I quite liked it. So what worked? What didn’t? Let’s take a look.
Oh, by the way, spoilers ahead.
It’s your last warning!
Into the Woods, for those of you who don’t know, is based on the 1987 Tony Award winning musical composed by the legendary Stephen Sondheim. Into the Woods cleverly interweaves the classic tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel alongside an original story about a childless Baker and his wife. When a Witch reveals she cursed the pair to infertility in vengeance against his father, the Baker and his wife are tasked with finding four magical ingredients. The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. As you can imagine, the characters all cross paths as they go to get their wishes granted, and everything ends happily….for the first act. The second act goes into detail about what happens after ‘happily ever after’ as the characters are forced to face the consequences of their actions in Act One.
This was one of the first examples of twisted fairytales. It brings the stories into the world of reality, by showing how life doesn’t always have a happy ending and what you want isn’t necessarily what’s best for you. It’s really the ultimate ‘be careful what you wish for’ message.
All the characters, main or supporting, have beautifully defined personalities that go beyond the fairytale archetypes. This is a true ensemble piece, and everyone has a realistic and developed character arc.
This story could have been a cluttered mess, and granted it is a rather dense plot, but it’s told in a way that never leaves you confused or lost. The pacing is excellent, and you have an even distribution of comedy and drama. They aren’t afraid to make you laugh and they don’t shy away from raw emotional scenes either. There’s a lot of very clever fourth wall jokes, the best one being the characters feeding the narrator to the Giant in Act 2. The score is absolutely brilliant (come on, it’s Sondheim!) with sweeping instrumentals and clever lyrics that only Sondheim in all his genius can supply.
It’s about as perfect a musical I can think of. If I had to nitpick anything, and I mean really scraping the bottom of the barrel, the ending does drag on just a little bit too long. But that’s honestly the only thing I can think of.
Ok, ok, I’ve sung the show’s praises. Time to compare.
The original cast starred Bernadette Peters (The Witch), Joanna Gleason (Baker’s Wife), Chip Zien (Baker), Danielle Ferland (Little Red), Ben Wright (Jack) and Kim Crosby (Cinderella).
In the film we had Meryl Streep (Witch) James Corden (Baker), Emily Blunt (Baker’s Wife), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince), Lilla Crawford (Little Red), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), and Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel). Generally speaking, this is solid casting, with most of these actors being good choices for the roles and many turning in strong performances. James Corden and Emily Blunt carry the film exceptionally well as two ordinary homemakers thrust into a world they don’t understand. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, though both too young for the roles imbibe them with youthfulness and energy. None of the supporting cast (Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Johnny Depp, etc) stand out in negative ways, but the actress who really blew me away was Mackenzie Mauzy. Rapunzel isn’t a giant role in the musical and considering how much of her story was cut (which will be discussed later) she created something truly heartfelt and mesmerising.
However, this cast was not without weak links. As I said, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone , while doing a good job, were both too young. Personally, I think Jack comes across as more comical when played older (around 18-20), considering the dynamics with his mother. As for Little Red, she’s always played by an adult who looks young (20-25 or so) for reasons that become dazzlingly clear as soon as the Wolf appears. The sexual tension in that scene just becomes creepy otherwise. I rolled my eyes when the Wolf opened his jacket, revealing an array of lollies. Subtlety? What’s that?
As for Anna Kendrick, her singing sounded lovely (possible autotune?) but her acting was…lacking. Granted, Cinderella is probably the hardest character to play in Into the Woods, but it can definitely be done. Kim Crosby turned this role into something quirky, funny and strong willed. Anna Kendrick let so many lines fall flat and missed a lot of opportunities for comedy and real drama. I don’t know if it was the character choices or the director, but her Cinderella came off as bland and not very interesting.
Then we have Meryl Streep. When I heard she was cast as the Witch, I was hyped. She seemed the perfect choice, no question. So we have the legendary actress of our time…in one of the most confusing performances I’ve ever seen. Every time I watch her, I shake my head and have less idea what she was trying to accomplish. She’s so over the top, but with no focus or reason. She adds all this weird physicality; it’s like she’s incapable of being still. I don’t know what went wrong here. It’s like she was afraid to be grounded and commanding and thought the safest option was to ham it up to 11. To be fair though, her singing has improved miles since Mamma Mia (which I am NOT planning to review any time soon, by the way) and her crowning moment was during Stay With Me. It’s not a bad performance per se, but it’s certainly not what I wanted or thought I was going to see from such talent. And in such an iconic musical theatre role. Bring on Bernadette Peters any day.
The music, however, is the star of the film, and it sounds magnificent with that orchestra. It sounds lush, epic, and majestically carries the plot forward. The staging of the songs is at times extremely clever, such as On the Steps of the Palace freezing time or the visuals in I Know Things Now. My favourite number by far was Agony, which was absolutely perfect. It’s one of the few male duets in modern musical theatre, and one of the funniest. Both Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen work off each other fantastically and the rivalry dynamic works a charm. The waterfall was a creative setting too (actually, the movie was visually stunning and didn’t rely on it either!). I do wish the reprise had been included, but you can’t have everything you want.
The only song I really missed in the film was No More, which is actually my favourite song from the musical. I can kind of see why it was cut though. Without the Mysterious Man, and therefore very little of the Baker’s Father, the song may have felt shoehorned in. But this also created a world of problems. Without the song, the Baker didn’t have much reason to return. His father’s speech made little impact. There was no decision made about whether to keep fighting on. The Baker just walks away, cries for less than ten seconds and suddenly he’s ok. Sense! Please make it!
There weren’t all that many changes to the story, and most of the changes I can understand and even like, because hey, it’s a movie, not a stage show. Having the Baker narrate the show was an inspired move, although I did miss the Mysterious Man. I’ll also admit I laughed out loud when the Baker’s Wife became pregnant in a microsecond. At least they had the smarts to actually make a joke about it.
But I do have one problem with the movie, and unfortunately it’s kind of a big one.
Great, good, meh, awkward, good, good, …what?, good, good, hilarious
In my humble opinion, the biggest mistake the movie made was not killing off Rapunzel. Why? Because it pulls the entire second act apart. In the stage show, Rapunzel suffers from Post traumatic stress disorder and post natal depression from her treatment at the hands of the Witch. The Giant’s wife climbs down the second beanstalk looking for revenge on Jack for killing her husband and stealing their things. Fair enough. In the initial confrontation, the Narrator is fed to the Giant, Jack’s Mother is accidentally killed by the Prince’s Steward, and Rapunzel is trampled to death. The Witch sings Lament over her adoptive daughter’s fate, and spends the rest of the show trying to give Jack over to the Giant in revenge.
In the movie, Rapunzel simply tells the Witch she wants nothing to do with her anymore and rides off with her Prince. And that’s it. We never see her again.
This plot change was revealed prior to release, but the producers assured us that Rapunzel would still have a tragic ending. But this is far from a tragic ending. The Witch singing Lament, while still a beautiful song, has much less impact when sung about a person who has simply released a toxic person from their life. Additionally, because Rapunzel doesn’t die, the Witch has zero motivation to go after Jack. She has no reason to want the Giant dead. This also waters down the Last Midnight, as the Witch’s role as the ironic voice of reason is lessened since she has nothing at stake.
I realise the producers probably didn’t want to upset the kids in the audience by killing off Rapunzel. But here’s my argument: just who do they think this story is aimed at? It is not a children’s story. There’s a number of reasons why there’s a junior version of Into the Woods. Fairytales were originally dark and gruesome. They were cautionary tales. Killing off Rapunzel is one of the many brave choices James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim made in the original. None of the characters are in the right. The things they wished for didn’t bring them true happiness. There have been serious consequences, including death. In most fairytales, the Witch would be the villain, but as I said above, here she’s the voice of reason. The writers of the musical were not afraid of these changes in the pursuit of the message and story they were telling. The movie is another example of Hollywood being terrified of giving audiences the truth.
But at the end of the day, this is still a good film of a very difficult adaptation and it’s not getting out of here without a recommendation. Still, I would also highly recommend checking out the original Broadway cast DVD. Whichever way you choose, Into the Woods is musical theatre at its finest.