It’s difficult to tell if Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical, Into the Woods, was ever meant for the big screen, much less a Disney production. I don’t think Sondheim was aiming for the matinee crowd, but that doesn’t stop director Rob Marshall from softening the blow, with all the nasty parts and ghoulish developments either haphazardly muted or sawed off completely in an effort to appeal to a family audience.
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
Into the Woods is lost forever.
In a world of fairy tale characters, The Baker (James Corden) and The Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) are struggling to have a baby. Offering the couple a pregnancy if they complete a scavenger hunt, The Witch (Meryl Streep) orders them to retrieve Cinderella’s (Anna Kendrick) golden slipper, Rapunzel’s (Mackenzie Mauzy) yellow hair, Red Riding Hood’s (Lilla Crawford) red cape, and Jack’s (Daniel Huttlestone) white cow.
Into the Woods’ stage debut nearly 30 years ago was a triumph, commencing a long life of touring companies and Broadway dominance. The charged musical took its Brothers Grimm inspiration seriously, keeping audiences unsettled as sexuality and murder were woven into traditional displays of romance and heroism.
The Disney version waters down most of the macabre material to fit a PG rating. Yet pockets of sin remain, including a war of come-ons between The Wolf (Johnny Depp in a cameo) and Red Riding Hood. Marshall does his duty playing down the pedophile overtones, but Depp didn’t receive the memo. The sexual suggestion could be seen from space.
More violent encounters creep in later on. The Prince’s quest to find a match for a wayward slipper is greeted by the desperation of Cinderella’s Stepmother, who slices off parts of her daughters’ feet to help them fit the shoe.
To Marshall’s credit, the opening act does a fine job, balancing securely on boppy exposition tunes that promise a feisty, fluid picture. And the movie is engaging for a short time. There’s a tight, tempting, dangerous 80-minute musical fighting for oxygen in the 120 minutes it takes for Into the Woods to tell its story.
Sets and woodsy locations sell the fantasy splendidly, creating a sufficiently mysterious realm that’s explored by these hesitant personalities, each saddled with a bit of psychological blockage to encourage emotional depth.
But Marshall isn’t content to close at the end of the story, which carries on for another 40 minutes in a disastrous third act—a completely superfluous reset of conflict that’s trying to remain close to Sondheim without earning the laborious extension.
Fans of the original might be more at ease with the next stage of terror awaiting the fairy tale community, but nothing is solved by this swan dive into additional death, out-of-character infidelity, and a weird summation of moral duty articulated by cartoon characters.
It’s certainly a pretty film, with a real spring in its step for a fair amount of screentime, but once it begins to take itself seriously, Into the Woods is lost forever.