What do all great fairy tales have in common? Magic, tragedy, and the woods — a dark and mystical place where danger lurks at every turn. James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim put four classic tales into the popular Broadway light opera Into the Woods, having them all intersect in the woods, and giving each multiple twists on the now-familiar narratives. The stage play now comes to the screen with a talented cast and superb production values, but might leave those unfamiliar with the Lapine/Sondheim treatment scratching their heads by the end.
When the film was first released at Christmas, social media featured a lot of head-scratching and criticism over the film. Its marketing didn’t make clear that Into the Woods was not just a musical but a light opera, where the majority of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. Those who had seen the play (myself included) knew that beforehand, but it seems to have taken many by surprise. The songs are witty but the lyrics fly by rapidly and can be difficult to follow. For those who enjoy light opera and know what they’re getting into, the film can be delightful — mostly.
Into the Woods blends the familiar fairy tales of Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella and connects them, literally in the woods, and figuratively by the Witch (Meryl Streep), who needs to be freed from a curse. This ends up forcing a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) into all four tales as well, especially Jack’s (Daniel Huttlestone) and Little Red Riding Hood’s (Lilla Crawford). The hinge for the first act, which takes up more than half of the film, is a strange scavenger hunt that the Witch promises will allow the Bakers to have a child — but the Witch has her own motivations, too.
As one might imagine, the take on all of these tales is dependably modern. The Bakers argue over whether the wife should take part in the adventure, for instance, and eventually the Cinderella romance founders on the vanity of Prince Charming (a surprisingly excellent performance from Chris Pine). All of this keeps Into the Woods on a witty and mostly lighthearted note throughout the first act. Even the resolution of the Witch’s curse, which haunts the entire first act, turns into a frantically fun climax.
However, the tone of the film shifts abruptly in the second act. As perhaps befitting Grimm’s tales that provide three of the four narratives (Jack and the Beanstalk is the only exception), the film becomes dark, tragic, and oddly cynical — which is why, in the local children’s theater production I saw a couple of years ago, the second act was not performed. Even while turning dark, the lyrics of the songs remain rather bright and witty, losing none of the melodic sparkle from the first act, which makes the action confusing and saps it of emotional resonance. Several of the lead actors depart under unhappy circumstances in one way or another. By the end of the film, viewers might be tempted to feel like survivors rather than happy spectators to the action.
The cast is first rate. Streep has the most fun, but Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, and Tammy Blanchard come close as Cinderella’s wicked stepfamily. Anna Kendrick breaks tradition as a brunette Cinderella, and it’s Kendrick, Blunt, and Corden who provide most of the film’s emotional connection. Johnny Depp has a glorified cameo as The Wolf, but it’s Crawford who delivers on the Little Red Riding Hood story in a mischievous take. The Rapunzel narrative is mostly forgettable, but Billy Magnussen and Pine have a hilarious number in “Agony” about the fate of wealthy and attractive princes; only Pine’s narrative really delivers on that premise, though.
It all adds up to an entertaining, if somewhat flawed, presentation — as long as one knows the kind of experience to expect from Into the Woods. I saw the film with my two granddaughters (12 and 6 years old), and they both loved it, although the younger was a little frightened at times, more so in the second act. It’s rated PG mainly for the tension and a small amount of suggestive material, but that went over the heads of the kids and didn’t even really register all that much with the adults. Children who enjoy musicals will probably have no issues with Into the Woods, but adults who don’t enjoy light opera should find another film.
On the Hot Air rating scale — which assumes in this case that the viewer enjoys light opera — Into the Woods gets a four:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
One final note: Some people found Depp’s character to be nearly pedophilic in the Little Red Riding Hood sequence. The explicit context, though, was making the girl the Wolf’s next meal, and there didn’t seem to be any other subtextual elements in that narrative that don’t already exist in the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale itself. As the character says in the film, the moral of the fairy tale is to stick to the path and don’t talk to strangers, which it already delivers in a heavy-handed way. That criticism makes a mountain out of a long-known molehill.