Disney has had a long history of adapting “dark” source material by lightening it up to fit their label of “family entertainment.” Their newest film, an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical phenomenon Into the Woods, seems like it suffered from an identity crisis during the production. Director Rob Marshall does a competent job of honoring the spirit of the musical, but you can’t help but feel the presence of Disney censors requesting that certain elements be toned down. As a result, some of the edginess of Sondheim’s work evaporates for most of the film, distilling the power of the story. When it pops back in, its presence creates a jarring shift in tone for the film to take. While it’s an issue, the tonal shift doesn’t prove to be a fatal one thanks to the excellent production values and talented ensemble cast.
The story draws many similarities to the TV series Once Upon a Time, as it brings together many famous characters from classic fairytales, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk. It’s primarily focused around a Baker and his wife who embark on a journey to lift a curse of infertility that was set upon the Baker’s family years ago by an old witch. She agrees to revoke the curse if the couple brings her four items; “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.” This journey acts as the framing device necessary to bring together all of the aforementioned fairy tale characters who just so happen to have the items that they need.
Despite what die-hard theater enthusiasts will preach, Into the Woods is not devoid of Sondheim’s violence and darkened storylines. Sure the Freudian sexual psychology is absent and not all tragedy is visible, but there’s enough remnants to appease typical filmgoers. It also maintains the strongest moral of the musical; not all fairy tales have happy endings. It’s made quite clear the dangers of unrealistic desires and their unwanted consequences. Credit to screenwriter James Lepine for not losing these essentials given it’s an adaption of his own stage version. When danger does rear its head in the third act, it also demonstrates the realities of healing and moving on in the face of adversity.
Unlike the majority of Disney’s animated canon, Into the Woods doesn’t beat you over the head with any sort of message. It’s a very entertaining film both visually and musically. Having previously adapted Broadway musicals to the screen with Chicago and Nine, Marshall expertly stages the musical numbers and sets together along with the performers. It’s cliché to say that Meryl Streep does an excellent job because she always does, but there’s plenty of surprises from the ensemble. Many including myself cringed when he first saw stills of Johnny Depp’s role as the Big Bad Wolf. Given his recently “questionable” film choices, I was dreading his appearance in the film. Despite being rather short, Depp’s both humorous and imposing over his limited appearance. He serves the film as opposed to his usually distracting roles.
Most surprising of all is Chris Pine’s role as Cinderella’s Prince. I’ve yet to see him take on a role where he’s having a lot of fun until this film. He’s pompous to the point of being ridiculous, but the theatricality of his performance matches the stage musical well. Picture it as if William Shatner was portraying him (ironic considering both men have shared the role of Kirk in the Star Trek universe). His speech patterns, mannerisms, and womanizing veneer evoke memories of Shatner. He and the other prince have the most memorable musical number in the film as they agonize other their relationship woes.
Speaking of music, most but not all of the film is sung. Given that it’s drawing from one of the most acclaimed composers of recent history, the songs are uniformly well executed. They’re also different stylistically to prevent monotony. Some are ballads, some are comedic, some are dramatic, and some are just arguments set to musical accompaniment. There’s a couple that get lost in the shuffle, but given the scope of the musical it’s practically unavoidable. Along with the music, there’s a couple of characters that serve no purpose once the film reaches its third act. Red Riding Hood is lumped with everyone else taking up space and Rapunzel’s arc just runs out of steam. By the way, I attribute this to the drastic change made to her fate comparatively to the musical. Even Cinderella kind of wears out her welcome even though Anna Kendrick tries her best to overcome the bland characterization. There comes a point where these characters feel more superfluous than beneficial to the telling of the story.
The final act doesn’t entirely possess the punching power of the musical, but it’s a much darker approach than any of Disney’s films of the last ten years or so. It does evoke a certain amount of pathos, but it would have been better if the whole film been kept consistent in adapting the entirety of the musical. There’s more than enough enchantment and musical grandeur to compensate for the story and tonal flaws. The final product is much better than what I had envisioned given Disney’s history. It’s a very good film and a worthy adaptation, but with a punch up and less cooks in the proverbial kitchen could have crossed over into greatness.
Review – Into The Woods (2014)