Thanks to the worldwide success of Frozen, Disney have made musicals all the rage again. But can their latest release, Into the Woods, deliver more of the same commercial acclaim, or does it strike a bum note?
To theatre fans, Into the Woods is obviously an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name, but to the general public this isn’t common knowledge. All they see is that Into the Woods is a Disney production, but this is not the typical, cheery Disney fairy tale and those going in expecting such will be disappointed.
Into the Woods, like many Sondheim musicals, is closer in spirit to an opera than a traditional musical. There is nearly non-stop singing. Sondheim’s songs feature climax harmonies and wordy lyrics that don’t seem as if they could possibly fit the musical stanza they go with and yet, by some miracle, they do. As challenging as Sondheim can be, for both the performer and listener, his songs are often clever, engaging and infectious.
Into the Woods combines several Brothers Grimm characters, including Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) with his famous beanstalk, into one narrative.
A witch (Meryl Streep) sets a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) on a mission that links all these characters. She will reverse a curse that prevents the couple from having children if they get her “a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold.” The witch has her own motives as the potion will restore her to her former beauty.
Fans of the stage version were concerned that with Disney producing the film that the darker elements of the story would be removed. These fears prove to be unfounded. Yes, things are removed, but that has more to do with making a three hour musical into a two hour movie.
The core themes of the stage version remain intact with the final third addressing what happens after happily ever and the consequences of getting what you wished for. These concluding scenes of Into the Woods may turn off viewers wanting their happy ending.
Many of the songs have a subversive, satirical tone that pokes holes into the fairy tale mystic. “On the Steps of the Palace” shows Cinderella questioning whether she even wants a life with the prince and “Hello, Little Girl” allows the Big Bad Wolf, brilliantly portrayed by Johnny Depp, to be truly predatory.
Into the Woods also restores many of the bleaker elements of the Grimm tales that have been dulled over the years including Cinderella’s stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch) cutting their feet in an attempt to fit into Cinderella’s slipper.
Not all musicals should or can make the transition from stage to screen, but the fairy tale settling of Into the Woods makes it an ideal candidate for a movie adaptation. Film allows for extravagant visuals that could never be done on stage. For instance, the amusing “Agony,” a duet between a couple of Prince Charmings (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), can take place at a waterfall.
After years of sanitizing fairy tales, Disney deserves credit for taking a chance on something as moody as Into the Woods and for only slightly dulling the edges. Into the Woods isn’t for everyone, but, for those open to something different, this a forest well worth exploring.