Once upon a time, there was a not too small, but not too big fandom that loved all things by Stephen Sondheim. This fandom had many different opinions and many different favorites, but the most widely beloved among them was a show called “Into the Woods.” Children of all ages loved this musical treasure. Its toe-tapping, honest, and dark take on classic fairy tales made it a rare, wonderful, and surprisingly family friendly show (you can’t take an 8-year-old to “Company” or “Sweeney Todd”) by this beloved composer. All was well with the world…angsty, wordy, and a little weird at times, but generally things were good.
Until one day, talks of a filmed version of this beloved tale reached this relatively peaceful fandom. This was not just any filmed version, but a film by Disney. There was no telling what the mouse would do with this well-loved show. All the fandom could do was wait and hope (and voice their opinions through chat rooms, message boards, blogs, vlogs, tweets, Facebook posts…you get the point…there was a lot of premature whining). What would become of this treasure?
Soon enough, Christmas 2014 came, and with it glad tidings of a movie that wasn’t terrible at all, but perhaps, quite wonderful, and that brings us to my review:
Full disclosure, I am most definitely a resident of the Sondheim fandom, and was following the progress of this movie from the moment it was announced, and I’m so happy to report, that they did a pretty good job.
For those unfamiliar, I’ll give you the abridged version. “Into the Woods” is the story of the Baker (James Corden), his Wife (Emily Blunt), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), her Prince (Chris Pine), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), the Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Jack’s Mother (Tracey Ullman), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), her Prince (Billy Magnussen), and the Witch (Meryl Streep).
Basically, it’s all of those classic fairy tales you know and love (and a few not so familiar ones) told as one. The themes are darker (truer to the original stories of the Brothers Grimm), the stories are sadder, but the lessons are still there.
At the onset of our story, things are pretty familiar: Cinderella wants to go the ball, Little Red is visiting her grandmother, Jack’s going to sell his cow, and Rapunzel’s trapped in her tower. Then there’s the Baker (whose story is reminiscent of the fairy tale trope, but is in fact an original tale created for the musical) who has just learned of a curse placed by the Witch on his household, rendering his wife barren. Each of our tales must enter the woods to seek the answers that will bring them what they wish for. As you’d expect from any fairy tale, they all get exactly what they wish for, but it’s what comes next that makes “Into the Woods” wonderful…but I’ll leave those spoilers alone.
The opening sequence that sets all of these stories up is a 15 minutes of sung exposition, and could have easily become confusing and bogged down, but the scene moves swiftly and clearly, and showcases this gloriously talented ensemble.
One of many things that Sondheim is fantastic at is knowing when things should be sung vs. spoken. If you’ve ever been sitting at a musical and thought, “and we’re singing this why?” It wasn’t a Sondheim show. On stage “Into the Woods” is nearly sung through by just about everyone but the Narrator (a character that was replaced by a voiceover from the Baker—James Corden), so the distinction is usually between talk-singing. and full-on singing. Adding more spoken dialogue meant that decisions had to be made and most of them worked…most of them.
Be warned, this is hard to describe without throwing some major spoilers, so if you don’t want anything ruined, skip the next paragraph.
The climactic moment of this story and movie comes when the Baker’s lost all hope. He’s lost his wife and everything he knows, and walks away from his child and companions, thinking they’ll all be better off without him. On stage a song is sung at this point that turns his whole perspective around. In the movie he has a brief conversation with his dead father, cries for a second, then turns around rejoins his group. I understand why the original song was cut, it’s sung with a character that for all intent and purposes doesn’t appear in the movie—The Mysterious Man. A beautiful orchestration of the missing song still haunts this scene, which was a nice touch. For my own part, as someone who knew it was missing, it made the moment feel all the more hollow.
For the sake of space and time and adjectives, I’m just going to give a blanket compliment to this incredible ensemble cast. They are all exceptional, with one exception—Johnny Depp as the Wolf.
It’s not that he’s bad in the role, or that he ruins the movie. Truth be told he’s barely in the movie, blink and you’ll miss him. My problem with his presence goes beyond his performance in the role itself. Usually the part is double cast with Cinderella’s Prince with good reason. It draws a literal and symbolic connection between this animal and the animal-like behavior of the Prince. The first revival even took it a step further and double cast both princes as two wolves. They are metaphorically and literally wolves. Get it?
That’s enough of the negative. It still works, it just could have worked better. That does bring me to a called out cast compliment though for Chris Pine, who didn’t let the fact that he didn’t get to play the Wolf stop him from incorporating those animal attributes into his performance as the Prince. Whether it was by chance or choice, it was noticed, and worked so well. Not to mention, the film’s take on “Agony” is one of the best I’ve ever seen, period.
I do also have to give independent props to Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. A lot of the humor of this story was lost somewhere in translation, but none of those missing laughs were anywhere near Ms. Blunt’s performance. The Baker’s Wife was just as funny, dark, and tragic on film as she is on stage.
Once you accept the two biggest changes that were made to the story—eliminating the Narrator and the Mysterious Man—you have to admit that Disney did a good job. The score, sets, costumes (aside from the confusing choice for the Wolf), and cast are all wonderful. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s just about as close as we (the fandom of Sondheim) could have hoped for.