The much anticipated Disneyfied version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s revered musical Into the Woods, opened on Christmas Day nationwide and pulled in millions of fans of the musical or of Broadway in general, as well as millions of families with small children eager for a Disney version of famous fairy tales. It seems unlikely that either group came away completely satisfied.
If you are indeed looking for a kid-friendly movie, you need to know that there are some dark, dark moments in this film, beginning quite early in the confrontation of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) with the Wolf (Johny Depp). Lapine and Sondheim’s script underscores sexual innuendos in the Wolf’s animal desires, and while the film all but eliminates the scene in which the Wolf devours Red, his song is as complete, and suggestive, as ever. And there are deaths in the film, as well as adultery, and blinding by thorns and by attacking birds, though these things are presented mainly by suggestion—unless you count the killing of giants.
But as long as you are aware of these things there is no reason that families with somewhat older children can’t have a great time for the first hour and a half of this film. The musical’s first act takes familiar fairy tales—Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huddlestone), and Little Red Riding Hood—and intertwines them with a new fairy tale invented for the play, the tale of a Baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who are childless and, on the instructions of the Witch from next door (Meryl Streep), spend the first act undoing a curse on their house as they go into the woods for three consecutive nights to find four items (a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold, and hair as yellow as corn), a quest that brings then into contact with characters from the other stories, all of whom are trying to find a way to achieve their deepest wishes—Cinderella’s “I wish…” provides the opening line of music in the film. Sondheim’s songs are memorable and Lapine’s lyrics complex and clever and provide some insightful psychology (like Cinderella’s indecisive song of decision “On the Steps of the Palace”), some sensitive songs of loss of innocence from the young characters taking steps to maturity (Red Riding Hood’s “Nice is different than good…” from her song “I Know Things Now” after her encounter with the Wolf, paralleled by Jack’s “You’re back again only different than before…” from his “Giants in the Sky” number after he returns from his first trip up the beanstalk). A high point of the first act is the hilarious “Agony” duet between Cinderella’s prince (Chris Pine) and Rapunzel’s prince (Billy Magnussen), an over-the-top performance that is guaranteed to win over the audience, while at the same time demonstrating the shallow and pampered lives of the princes.
The cinematography is beautiful. One of the things film can do that a stage production cannot is provide a real-world setting that complements the action, and the woods, including the running stream and waterfall that form the performing space of the “Agony” number, for instance, add to the overall joy of the song. Special effects, like the swirling leaves that mark the Witch’s sudden appearances and disappearances, add to the magic of the presentation, though the giant at the end seems a good deal less frightening, and less real, than she could have.
The cast does a praiseworthy job with the material. Although Depp is somewhat cartoonish in his small role, partly because of the rather silly looking costume and makeup that detract from the otherwise realistic look of the film, Streep, always brilliant in her performances, is spellbinding in the first act, and more impressive in her vocals than in the forgettable Mama Mia. The children—Crawford and Huddlestone—are much less cloying and more professional than one fears with such roles, though it was difficult to figure out why Huddlestone spoke and sang with a Cockney accent, especially when his mother (Tracy Ullman) did not. Perhaps he learned it from his absent father. Kendrick’s Cinderella is clever and a little conniving, not the passive and abused servant you might expect. And Blunt and Corden (the true Broadway veteran in the cast) are likeable and believable in the central roles of the Baker and his wife. Their chemistry is so strong, and Blunt has managed to, well, blunt the rougher edges of the wife’s character, that (spoiler alert) her infidelity in the second act comes as a surprise rather than the inevitability it seems in well-acted stage productions of the play.
Which leads me, unfortunately, to act two. For viewers familiar with the play, the problems of the film’s second act will probably seem the natural outgrowth of some bad directorial decisions in the first act. Marshall and/or Disney have decided to eliminate the character of the Narrator from the production (although there is a voice-over narrator who repeats many of the original Narrator’s lines). This may be justified by the medium—a narrator portrayed as a character could be awkward in a film. It does mean that the death—sacrifice or murder?—of the Narrator in act two, an event that in the play signals the characters’ rejection of the father figure who has governed their choices, and the necessity of their growing up and making their own decisions now. But this can be conveyed in other ways. More serious is the decision to eliminate the Mysterious Man (often played by the same actor as the Narrator in productions of the play). That character in the play, who turns out to be the Baker’s father, moves about in the woods trying to help the Baker and his wife fulfill their quest as he tries to expiate his own guilt at having brought the curse upon his house, and finally dies at the close of the first act having helped to end the curse. He is absolutely vital to the Baker’s motivation in act two and his indecision and insecurity in his role as father. The meeting of the Baker with the memory of his father in act two, and their touching and profound duet “No More,” are absent, replaced by a confusing meeting that takes all of twenty seconds in which the father gives the Baker some lame excuse about having been greedy and suddenly changes the Baker’s mind. People who do not know the play will say, “What just happened?” People who do know the play will say, “That was awful!”
Nor is there a reprise of the “Agony” number in act two. For the film, such a reprise might have seemed redundant. But what it does in the play is underscore for the audience that the triviality of the Princes’ approach to life is simply inappropriate in the real world that follows the “Happily ever after…I wish” ending of the act one finale (which is also cut in the movie). As a result (spoiler alert), the Prince’s infidelity to Cinderella comes out of nowhere. So much is cut from the second act (it is only half an hour long in this film version) that we have no chance to see Cinderella’s disenchantment with her Prince. Nor do we really see the friction between the Baker and his wife that would motivate her actions with the Prince.
Perhaps worst of all is the decision to essentially drop the Rapunzel story after the very beginning of act two. In the play, Rapunzel goes mad from the Witch’s treatment of her, and in running from her mother runs straight to her own death at the hands of the giant. The Witch’s agonized “Children Won’t Listen” loses all its effect when she is simply mourning her daughter’s rejection rather than her death. Thus her own rejection of the world in her “Last Midnight” song is virtually unmotivated. Even Meryl Streep can’t make it make sense.
I don’t know who is most to blame for the disaster that is the last half hour of this movie. It may be Disney’s desire to present a film that’s just a little edgy but still kid-friendly. We’ll have a pedophiliac Wolf who has to die. We’ll have an adulterous wife vaguely suggested, but she must also die. We’ll even have a boy’s mother die, but by accident not malice. But we’ll eliminate two other characters who would have had to die, and have another one live, in spite of the damage it all does to the story. We’ll put in the second act of Sondheim and Lapine’s play—the act that denies the existence of “happily ever after” and that warns us to be careful what we wish for—but we’ll cut more than half of it away so that those unfamiliar with the play will simply be confused, and those familiar with the play will be disturbed. Do the second act right or don’t do it at all; those should have been the options here.
In the end, I’ll give the film two Jaquelyn Susanns and half a Tennyson, mainly on the strength of the music, which the filmmakers couldn’t do anything to ruin, and chalk it up as a great opportunity muffed.