There are spoilers in this review.

I recently wrote about Into the Woods in my Top 10 Favorite Stage Musicals, so I went into this movie knowing that I was going to have a bias. From the first announcement I was cautiously excited, because I couldn’t really see how Disney would accomplish a dark comedy. The answer of course was it wouldn’t, but Sondheim was involved so I thought maybe he could persuade them to take more chances. And perhaps Disney would argue that they were taking chances by taking on a live-action musical that’s very skeptical of the happy endings that Disney usually sells. Into the Woods debuted in 1986, with music and lyrics by master cynic Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. Bernadette Peters famously stared as the Witch on the stage for several years, and the show won many Tony awards. It’s had several revivals. It’s famous for its use of Grimm’s fairy tales to show the reality that “happily ever after” isn’t all its cracked up to be. With clever and sharp writing it walks the line between tragedy and comedy, with several overhanging themes that stays with the audience long after they leave. So that’s what the stage play is about. Let’s look at the movie instead.

We’re introduced to five major storylines featuring characters who wish desperately for something to add to their lives. A Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) wish they had a child, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wishes to go to the Prince’s festival and flee her depressing life, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) wishes he could keep his cow Milky White with him, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wishes to eat some sweets and see her Granny, and the Witch (Meryl Streep) wishes to be young and beautiful again. The Witch cursed the Baker’s family after the Baker stole from her garden, saying they would never have any more children, and took their child Rapunzel to raise as her own. The Baker and his Wife are given the opportunity to have a child again if they get the “cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, shoe as pure as gold, and cow as white as milk.” The Witch will lift the curse if they bring her those items by the end of three nights. All of the characters converge on the woods, a giant and dark forest where everyone learns lessons in. It’s a place where people can be something they’re not, or rather become braver, be more daring, or get into some dangerous situations.

INTO THE WOODS

Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten with her Granny by the Wolf (Johnny Depp), but the Baker comes along and saves them. She gives him her cape in thanks. Jack sells the cow to the couple for magic beans, which infuriates his Mother (Tracey Ullman), but the beans grow a beanstalk and he finds giants living in the sky. He gets gold and tries to buy his cow back from the couple, but they refuse, and the cow dies. Cinderella makes it to the ball and goes every night, but she flees despite the Prince (Chris Pine) growing increasingly infatuated with her. Rapunzel is courted by the Prince’s brother (Billy Magnussen), but her mother is having none of that so she harms the prince and blinds him. However by the end of the three nights, they accomplish all of the tasks and the Witch gets her beauty back. Rapunzel and her prince get married, Cinderella and her prince get married, Jack is now wealthy with his mother, although he accidentally killed the giant when it came fleeing down to take back its harp. The couple have their child. So the story should be over … right?

Wrong! At the wedding, a second giant appears, the wife of the one that died. She comes down from a beanstalk that Cinderella accidentally caused by throwing one of the beans, and starts terrorizing the land, looking for Jack. Rapunzel and her prince run away. In the woods they all seek Jack since the village has been destroyed, and Jack’s mother is accidentally killed by the royal Steward when he’s trying to stop her from talking back to the giant. The Witch insists that they give Jack to the giant, although her powers now appear to be gone or weakened. The Baker’s Wife is seduced by Cinderella’s prince, and she falls unexpectedly to her death. The Baker is horrified when Jack tells him he found her body, and he abandons his child with Cinderella, Red, and Jack, but he comes back so he won’t be like his own abandoning father. Together the four trap the giant and kill her by dropping a giant tree on her. They all resolve to stay together and the Baker tells the story to his son, starting with “Once Upon a Time.”

There are definitely some great things they accomplish here. The music is very good. All the actors do an excellent job, both in their speaking roles and while singing. The set design is great and the costumes are lovely. It’s very atmospheric, and that fits in well with the importance of the woods. They do cut out several roles from the play because they get a little superfluous, and on the whole I agree with the decisions. The second act is changed from the play, and I think that’s the greatest weakness. In the movie, they don’t do the jump between happily ever after and “buuuut it’s not.” They go from the wedding and everyone smiling to immediately the giant attacks. In the play, the narrator says “Once Upon a Time … Later.” And we see all of our characters again, but this time they’re all dissatisfied about getting the things they wanted. They have new Wishes, proving that no matter what, people keep wanting more. None of them learned any lessons from their experience. This doesn’t happen here, and that’s a big fault I think. The Baker’s Wife cheats on her husband here, but it seems random and unexpected, because we haven’t seen them fighting or that she’s gotten bored with him. In the play there’s been time and the couple find they don’t enjoy being parents as much as they thought, and that they’re cramped and bored.

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Rapunzel is not killed here, and I knew they were going to keep her alive, but I think there’s really no point to it. They just didn’t want an extra tragedy, there were already so many deaths, but her death was important to the play. For one, we missed the “Agony (Reprise)” song in which the princes reveal they’re bored with the wives they have and are already in love with new women (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty). It’s a nod to the overall theme that people keep wanting new things, and the shallowness of the princes who barely knew their wives in the first place. Instead they chose to give Rapunzel and her prince a happy ending, I guess because they felt like everyone else was suffering. But it sort of missed the mark there. Rapunzel’s death was also a huge point for the Witch, who realized her faults as a parent and lost her child in that moment, leading her to sing her angry “Last Midnight” song and disappear. These might seem like nitpicks, but they aren’t in my opinion. The movie has trouble with tone and with purpose. It’s a dark play, and it feels like they wanted to go only so far. They still have the song “No One is Alone” when they talk about ambiguous morality with Red and Jack, and I like that. But the overall story of Into the Woods is about wishes being shallow. And also it talks a lot about children and their parents. That portion I think they leaned on more, and I’m not surprised, it’s Disney. But I can’t say I find that they were really clear of vision by the end. So the last twenty or so minutes felt uneven. They cut a significant part of Act Two out of the movie, and personally it suffers for it. The first act is only supposed to set up the general idea … and then act two drives the point home. That doesn’t happen here.

I should have expected it from Disney, and I don’t think it’s a bad movie. The music is still fantastic, and the actors are very strong. Streep of course knocks it out of the park, and Pine is hilarious. I’m surprised Blunt got a nod instead of Kendrick; not to say Blunt wasn’t good, she was, although if they did the Baker’s Wife story correctly she would’ve had more meat. But Kendrick’s Cinderella seemed to have more depth than usual. I loved “Your Fault” and “Agony,” and I was shocked they went ahead with the pedolicious “Hello Little Girl.” I look forward to seeing this on DVD and the extras, because I feel like the behind the scenes will be fascinating. They are fine with subverting some of the famous stories, and it is a little darker than Disney probably wanted. At the same time, if you’re going to take a play that is famous for its dark comedy and satire, you really should commit to it.

Also I really missed “Agony (Reprise).” Come on. Everyone loved the first version, the second one would’ve gotten even bigger laughs.

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