If you know anything about me, you know I’m not all that into plays/musicals. I don’t have any particular issue with them - they just tend to be not my cup of tea. I did see a high school production of Into the Woods many years ago – and always remember finding it very entertaining, so I was looking forward to the movie.
The play is by Stephen Sondheim and debuted in 1986 in San Diego. It quickly went to Broadway for an extended run, and in 1989 the Broadway production was shown on PBS. Essentially, the play Into the Woods introduces 4 characters from known fairy tales and weaves them together with catchy tunes and complicated morality lessons.
Director Rob Marshall is well-versed with bringing musicals to the screen (He did Chicago and Nine) as well as random non-sequels (Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides), and elegant book translations (Memoirs of a Geisha). As a fun bit of trivia, he also did the 1999 TV version of Annie that starred Kathy Bates and Victor Garber.
The movie, which has been kicked around for some time, is mostly a faithful translation of the play, with just a few changes here and there. There’s no narrator, but there is a voice-over by the Baker. The audience is introduced to four characters each with a wish – The Baker and his Wife wish they could have a child, Cinderella wishes to attend the King’s festival, and Jack wishes for his cow to give milk. The Baker and his Wife learn from their neighbor the Witch that they are unable to have a child due to a curse she placed on their family when the Baker’s father stole from her garden. Also – she claimed his older sister, Rapunzel. The witch offers to remove the curse, but only if the pair can get four items for her to create a potion (a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold) by the third midnight. The Baker sets off, stating it is too dangerous for his wife, who follows him anyway. They encounter Jack in the woods, on his way to sell the cow he loves because his mother demanded it. The Baker and Wife convince him the beans they found in his father’s coat are magic, and he parts with the cow for five ‘magic’ beans, after making them promise he can perhaps buy the cow back one day.
Little Red Riding Hood is on the way through the woods to her Granny’s house when she meets a wolf, and the Baker, who asks for her cape. After a bit of song and dance with the wolf, she gets distracted, and he goes to eat her grandmother. The baker runs into her, and wants her cape, but she refuses – continuing to on to Granny’s, only to be eaten by the wolf, and then saved by the Baker. She gives him the cape as a reward. Meanwhile – Cinderella has helped her horrible stepsisters get ready for the festival, and goes to her mother’s grave in the woods to ask for assistance. She is given a golden ball gown and slippers by her mother’s spirit – or the tree disguised as her mother’s spirit. She has a lovely time at the ball, but runs away at midnight after dancing with the prince. She runs into the Wife in the woods, who asks her about the ball, and requests the slippers, but Cinderella runs off, and the Wife loses the cow. The Witch shows up to remind them one midnight has passed.
The next day, the Wife spots two princes bemoaning their loves – the one with the running Cinderella, the other with Rapunzel high in her tower – with her yellow hair. The Wife goes to see, and steals a bit of Rapunzel’s hair. The Witch also learns that Rapunzel has had the prince visiting her, and cuts her hair and banishes her to a swamp, as her Prince is blinded by thorns trying to get to her tower. Jack climbs the beanstalk that grew outside his house when his mother threw the beans and gives 5 giant gold pieces to the Baker in an effort to buy back the cow, which he doesn’t have at the time – and Jack goes back for more. The witch reminds them they have one more day.
The Wife waits for Cinderella in the woods – she has left one of her slippers on the steps on the palace for the prince to find, and gives the other to the Wife. The Baker and his Wife get the three ingredients, and find the cow – which then promptly dies. They take them to the witch, who brings the cow back to life. They feed the ingredients to the cow – and milk her. The witch drinks the milk and the curse is lifted – and immediately (and I do mean immediately), the Baker’s wife is pregnant and the witch is suddenly young and beautiful. Rapunzel’s prince finds her by her singing, and her tears cure his blindness – you know, as tears do. Jack gets the cow back (and cut down the beanstalk – killing the giant), the Baker and his wife get a baby, the witch is young and pretty, and Cinderella has married her prince (after the whole shoe-fitting thing, during which her stepmother cuts bits off her stepsisters feet to attempt to get them into the shoe). Yay – happily ever after! Except – in the play, that’s just the end of act 1. In the movie, it feels like the first two-thirds, but either way…
The Baker worries he’s a terrible father because he had a terrible father, the Prince strays on Cinderella, and the Witch has lost her magic when she gained her youth and beauty. A second beanstalk grows after Cinderella had thrown away the remaining bean, and the giant’s widow comes down and begins wreaking havoc on the kingdom. She wants Jack and at this point, a bunch of crazy stuff happens really quickly – for such a long movie, this bit felt rushed. The Wife is temporarily seduced by Cinderella’s prince (what?!); Jack’s mother is killed by the Prince’s steward (he just shoved her!?); Red Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother are killed by the giant (we don’t even see that, someone just mentions it !?); Cinderella’s stepsisters are blinded by her bird friends (who then tell her the Prince was unfaithful); and the Wife falls off a cliff to her death (yes! Falls off a cliff! At least she didn’t get crushed by a tree like in the play). The remaining alive characters (the Baker, Jack, Red, and Cinderella) blame each other, and finally the witch – who reverses her own spell reversal then simply disappears. They put together a plan to kill the Giant and move forward with their ruined lives. Cinderella leaves the prince, and seems to immediately decide to move in with the Baker, and they take in Jack and Red as the Baker begins to tell the story to his son, starting with “once upon a time”.
If that sounds confusing to you – you’re right. And that’s leaving out random bits from the play like the brief inclusion of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty – Rapunzel in the desert, the ‘mysterious man’, and the narrator – who at one point gets thrown to the giant, not to mention a bunch of songs. Rob Marshall knows how to direct a musical, and it feels very much like the play, which I would say is a success in this type of thing. I did find that each of the songs sound similar, but maybe that’s due to the fact that a lot of them get layered over one another. Usually, when a musical movie is produced based off an existing play, an original song is added to compete for the Best Song Oscar. Apparently Sondheim did write two new songs just for the movie, but neither made it in.
In terms of the cast, everyone did as well as you expected them to do:
- James Corden from Hulu’s The Wrong Mans plays the Baker, and if there’s a lead in this movie, it’s him. He successfully carries the whole thing, and is completely believable as the frustrated baker. Also – what a great voice!
- Emily Blunt – who also worked with Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada – plays the Baker’s Wife, and she’s got a great voice too, which I did not know. She does a good job with what is there, I just found the character a bit weird, but hey – it’s a fairy tale/musical.
- Anna Kendrick – who proved to us she could sing in Pitch Perfect, plays Cinderella, and is very good. It’s a tough role, because not much of what Cinderella does makes sense, and she seems indecisive for most of the movie.
- Daniel Huttlestone – that annoying little kid from Les Miserables – plays the annoying little Jack in this movie. Actually, he’s just fine, I still haven’t gotten over how annoying he was in Les Mis…although, almost everything in that movie annoyed me, so maybe it’s not his fault? Tracey Ullman plays Jack’s mother, and she’s just fine. I found her death really odd, since it happened so quickly. A lot of people quickly die off-screen near the end of this movie.
- Christine Baranski vamps it up in the small role of Cinderella’s stepmother, and when she takes the knife to Tammy Blanchard as Florinda and Lucy Punch as Lucinda, it creeped me out. I know you want them to fit that shoe, but yikes!
- Broadway vet Lilla Crawford plays Red Riding Hood, and does a really great job. Her duet with Johnny Depp as the wolf was apparently ‘jazzed up’ to make it seems less pedophile-y. Apparently in the play, Red is usually 20ish, so the double entendres in the wolf’s song are more appropriate. You don’t really notice them here, and Crawford is great at being sassy.
- Speaking of which, why Johnny Depp is in this is a bit of a mystery to me – seems a bit like stunt casting. He was for sure mentioned in every commercial for the movie, and really has 5 minutes of screen time. I know that Marshall directed Pirates 4, so maybe that’s why?
- Meryl Streep plays Meryl Streep as the witch. Inevitably, she will get nominated for another Oscar for this – although I will leave it to you to decide whether or not the performance deserves it. Yes, she’s good, but Oscar good? I guess it depends who else is nominated!
- Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine play the two princes, and as with the play, the song Agony is one of the best in the movie. It is hilarious, and over-the-top, and who knew Chris Pine could sing?
- Mackenzie Mauzy plays Rapunzel, and she and her prince, once reunited, are almost never heard from again. Also – what about the fact that she’s the Baker’s sister – why is that never mentioned or followed up on? Doesn’t the Baker want to get to know her?
Overall, the movie is very entertaining. I felt the length, but not too much. It is definitely not for little kids – which is a little confusing, since it is by Disney, and there are several Disney princesses in the movie. There is a lot of dark stuff in the movie, and while they did move a lot of the deaths off-screen, there are still some scary sequences, and it doesn’t really have a happy ending, unless you leave halfway through – so maybe don’t take your kids until you pre-screen it.
7 out of 10 – Gained points for Agony – lost points for almost every other song sounding the same. Gained points for the sets – it looked really good. Lost points for Jack going back up that beanstalk so many times, and Gained points for Little Red being all proud of her knife and wolf-skin coat. Lost points for Johnny Depp – it would appear that I am officially over Johnny Depp (although, maybe I have been for a really long time).
Bonus Video 1: Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Honestly, I think Taye Diggs should have also narrated Into the Woods.
Bonus Video 2: Nine, another Rob Marshall musical that I never saw:
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews