Ever since it premiered on Broadway in 1987, Hollywood has been trying to adapt Into the Woods into a feature film. It’s no surprise that it took nearly 30 years to get it from the stage to the screen, the show plays with the conventions of a stage show freely. The process of adaptation requires the loss of a major character, The Narrator, and the severe editing down process of the entire second act, which engages in breaking the fourth wall.
I say all of this because Sondheim’s work is something that I hold close to my heart, and when it was announced that Disney was going to be handling the film version of Into the Woods feared the worst. Would they totally reject the second act and just film the first, in which the various fairy tales play out straight and everyone gets their happy ending? How would they handle moments like “Hello, Little Girl” or the deaths of various major players? And then it was announced that Rob Marshall was going to direct, and I was ready to scream out to the heavens. After doing great work with Chicago, Marshall went on to direct the uneven Memoirs of a Geisha and the terrible Nine, I never saw his entry in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. What was Disney doing to Sondheim’s beautiful, subversive stage show?
Well, it’s with a happy heart that I can announce that I found myself greatly enjoying the film version of Into the Woods. I made peace that the film would dismantle the second act, and that Disney would insist on taking some of the piss out of it. But what remains is as good an adaptation of the stage show as one could hope for. You’ve heard of novels that seem unfilmable on the surface? Into the Woods was a Broadway musical version of that.
Granted, Into the Woods does gloss over some of the more violent and sexual moments in the story, but it doesn’t outright abandon them. The Baker’s Wife still has a dalliance with The Prince, Red Riding Hood’s molestation and sexual awakening are mentioned even if whizzed past, and Cinderella’s still a bundle of neurosis.
I can forgive a lot of the changes with a cast this good delivering the material. James Corden and Emily Blunt are absolutely charming and winning as the Baker and his Wife. Anna Kendrick nails Cinderella’s big song, “On the Steps of the Palace,” and sells us on a twitchier version of a beloved character. Johnny Depp’s Wolf was something that worried me as the preliminary footage came out, but his “Hello, Little Girl” is gloriously cartoonish and strange. Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, and Tammy Blanchard are hypnotically evil and glamorous as Cinderella’s Wicked Step-Mother and Step-Sisters, even if this does mean that they’re parts are cut down severely due to the second half being edited so much. Tracey Ullman as Jack’s Mother is an obvious and smart bit of casting as she plays frazzled so well and is effortless is earning her laughs. Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford as Jack and Red Riding Hood are aces. Only Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel doesn’t get to make much of an impression, which probably has something to do with her character’s eventually descent into madness and trauma being removed from the film.
But Into the Woods really belongs to two actors: Meryl Streep as the Witch and Chris Pine as the Prince. Pine’s duet with Billy Magnussen, “Agony,” is a goofy highlight of the film’s first half. The two princes square off, posturing and preening like two peacocks trying to demonstrate who has the more colorful assortment of feathers, consistently trying to one-up each other’s emotional turmoil over not being able to be with their respective princesses. But throughout the film Pine gets the chance to deflate the image of the stereotypical Disney prince, which he looks like a live-action version of. While everyone else is playing real characters (or as real as they can make them with names like “Red Riding Hood” or “The Baker”), Pine’s prince is a two-dimensional construct, all perfectly styled hair and designer clothing labels. He can pout, pose, and give good face like a prince, but he’s a charming himbo with few redeeming actual qualities.
As for Streep, I haven’t been this enamored with a performance of hers since Doubt. She manages to make both halves of the Witch feel like the same person while highlighting different aspects of that persona depending on whether or not she’s glamorous or a crone. As the hideous crone, she’s all blustering fury and quick wit, manic and twitchy before gaining back her beauty. And as the glamorous version, who looks like a dreamy Blue Fairy, she highlights the long-suppressed vanity, the wit remains, but her posture and cool elegance return. “Stay With Me” is an emotional journey, but nothing compares to her furious and carefully modulated “Last Midnight,” a real show-stopper.
It’s not perfect, and perhaps I was a smidge too generous, but Into the Woods is an enjoyable adaptation of a beloved stage show. Marshall appears to have slowly reacquired his Chicago mojo. More than enough of the original Into the Woods survives that makes the trip worthwhile.