In the months leading up to the release of the Into the Woods film, I had many concerns. The casting of actual children as Jack and Little Red made me very nervous, given the very adult subject matter of certain scenes. Rumors of plot changes made me wonder how the emotional arcs would still work. I dreaded the day a photo of Johnny Depp in full wolf costume would be released (this turned out to not be as bad as I feared, thanks to their wise decision to make him more human-like than wolf-like). And, most of all, I realized that wishing for this movie to be good would mean I learned nothing from Into the Woods at all. Musical theater fans have been burned by poor movie adaptations so many times that it is often more frightening than exciting when they announce an adaptation of a musical you love, but luckily for us all, this was a case in which it (mostly) all worked out.
Ultimately, I was impressed with this movie. The cast was (almost completely) stellar, they nailed many of my favorite moments, and the sets and orchestrations were wonderfully cinematic. The one problem the film had is one that I honestly don’t think was avoidable, and it is that by nature this story is better told onstage in two acts.
I think most stories have one medium they are meant to be told in. Until watching the movie, I don’t think I truly understood how important the act break in the stage version of Into the Woods is to the story. I can’t think of any other musical where the intermission serves such a purpose. Usually it exists just to give the audience a break, but act one and act two of Into the Woods are practically two different, complete shows. Act one is lighter, more fun, a lot of set-up, and essentially a self-contained story that ends with most characters getting what they wished for. Act two is where the real message of the show, what happens after the happily ever after, comes into play. It is dark, twisted, shocking, and adult, and the act break signifies that this shift is about to happen. In the movie, which condenses the 3 hour stage show into 2 hours, the shift between the two “acts” feels abrupt and sudden. The cuts also led to a few pacing problems, primarily in that “act one” feels rushed, although I understand that if they had to cut things, it makes more sense to cut them from act one than from the meatier and more important act two. The only change or cut that I disagree with is the choice to let Rapunzel live- I do not understand why they didn’t just kill her because it would have changed very little and is important to the Witch’s arc. But again, I have no good suggestions for how this larger problem could have been fixed, short of a long fade to black in the middle of the film. It is just the nature of adapting a story that was written in two acts for a very specific reason into one continuous film.
The reason this movie works as well as it does is absolutely the cast. The most talked about performance will surely be Meryl Streep as the Witch, and she is fantastic. I had concerns about her ability to sing this complicated Sondheim score (it sure as hell ain’t ABBA), but she proved me wrong. I am sure she heard everyone doubting her as soon as she was cast and got herself some voice lessons. Careful the things you say, Meryl will listen. I want a gif of her “who CARES” because it was perfectly delivered and applies to so many situations in my life. Her Witch is different and distinct and she makes it her own, which is not an easy task considering how many spectacular actresses have done great things with the role over the years.
My personal favorite performance of the film was Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. While their roles are perhaps the most understated, the Baker and his Wife are in many ways the emotional core of the story, and Blunt and James Corden were just as charming and endearing as they had to be. I very much enjoyed the unintentional irony of the often visibly pregnant Blunt (her pregnancy level also fluctuates throughout the movie) playing a woman who is barren for most of the story. It also helped the Baker’s Wife’s case that no one can even blame her for straying with the Prince when he’s played by Chris Pine, who was basically just perfect and, like Blunt, displayed impressive vocal chops no one knew he possessed. I don’t think I’ve ever been as sad to see the Baker’s Wife meet her end as I was in this version, which is a testament to Blunt’s very effective performance.
And now we must talk about Johnny Depp. I would like to preface this by saying that I have always been a fan of his, but he was the weak link of this cast. It is for the best that his screen time amounted to probably only 5 minutes, and also VERY much for the best that his scene with Little Red was very de-sexualized because she was played by an ACTUAL CHILD. In the original stage production, the Wolf costume featured a giant penis and Little Red was played by actresses who were at least 16 years of age. Here, a lot of the sexual undertones were removed from “Hello Little Girl”, and I have never been so happy for a scene to cut away as I was when Little Red discovers the Wolf in her grandmother’s bed. In his one song, Depp also had the most severe vocal struggles of anyone in the cast, and his most disturbing moment involves sniffing. I don’t want to talk about this any more because I’m getting freaked out all over again.
The rest of the cast was also fantastic. Anna Kendrick, who has somehow become the unexpected queen (princess?) of movie musicals, was a delightful Cinderella and sang the challenging soprano role very well. Lilla Crawford, whom I adored as Annie on Broadway a couple years ago, was perfectly cast as Little Red- that is, perfect if you agree with their choice to go so young (I’m still not sure if I do). Daniel Huttlestone, who was a scene stealer as Gavroche in Les Mis, is an adorable Jack. Billy Magnussen and Mackenzie Mauzy are cute as Rapunzel and her Prince, and it is not their fault that no one cares about their part of the story. The film made the choice to, like in the musical, leave the Giant unseen, and I think it worked well. My favorite stretch of the show, which includes “Your Fault”, “The Last Midnight”, and “No One is Alone”, was pretty much spot on.
I walked away from this movie with far fewer complaints than I genuinely expected to have. The problems it has come from deep within the nature of the source material. It was never going to be easy to adapt, and the creative team did very well with what they had to work with. In the end, isn’t that all we can really wish for?