For a Disney adaptation of a popular musical, Into the Woods has flown surprisingly under the radar. Coming out of practically nowhere, and with all of the early advertising hiding the fact that it is a musical, you’d think Disney was somehow afraid of Into the Woods‘ oddball nature. But maybe flying under the radar was a good thing as it gets away with way more than you’d expect.
Into the Woods gets away with being a full blown musical, and it awesomely does not care what you think of it.
Based of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical, Into the Woods is five different fairy tales weaved together into one plot. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to a festival but is afraid of Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) trades some magic beans for his cow and ends up stealing from a giant, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wants to visit her grandma but gets stopped by the Wolf (Johnny Depp), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is stuck in a tower, and a poor Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) can’t have a child until they gather important items from these stories for the Witch (Meryl Streep) who’s put a curse on their house.
Director Rob Marshall once directed one my favorite musical adaptations, Chicago. But while that film kept some of the bombastic nature of the original stage version, it was toned down in most areas out of a self-inflicted need to keep the film grounded. When that film broke out one of its numbers, it was relegated to a dream sequence far and away from the “real” world. While I’ve never seen the Into the Woods stage play myself (and thus this is one of the few times I have no experience with a musical before it gets adapted), I was once again worried that these woven fairy tales would lose their mysticism and be grounded in some way. I was way off the mark there. Finally exploiting the inherent wackiness of every musical, Woods is a big, showy representation of what musicals can really do. While the lack of unsung dialogue (until the final third of the film) may throw a few people off as there are no clear starts and stops, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the fun.
And there’s so much fun to be had from Woods. While the staging itself is a bit small (instead of coming off as intimate, it’s stifling when each of these bombastic musical numbers occurs within such a confined area), the cast uses the area given well. Sure it’s weird to see so many of these characters cross paths often when the woods is shown as this big place, and it’s a little hokey when you recognize certain areas, but that might be more attributed to the original version. A good example of marriage between good staging and cast is when Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen perform “Agony.” As the two notably attractive Princes cavort and contort around a waterfall, it’s a wonderfully self aware, boy band type of performance. It’s goofy, wet, and they tear their shirts open for no reason. It’s fantastic. There’s plenty of that self aware goofiness here and it works for the kind of fantastical tale Woods tells.
As for the cast itself, every person holds their own with Lilla Crawford and Meryl Streep stealing the show. And in terms of arrangement, every song sounds good and there is nary a faulty note to be found. Although the flowing format of the film means I can’t tell you about a specific song (as it’s hard to gauge the title when so many songs start and stop over each other), it at least sounds nice. But notably, the songs get away with so much adult content. Johnny Depp gets a neat turn (an extended cameo, really) as a predatory wolf who exploits the inherent sexuality in the Red Riding Hood fairytale. But in most cases, I wished the film would’ve gone further. In the story there are multiple deaths, inappropriate sexual advances, and violent acts hidden within the songs, but it seems there was a bit of holding back. And this held back feeling clashes with the festival vibe the rest of the film gives off.
If there’s one major problem with Into the Woods, it’s that while it doesn’t care what you think, it really should care a little bit. With no clear stopping points, the film hits a bit of a lull at several occasions. It’s not impossible to glaze over certain events, and we’d have a much stronger film had it considered a tighter edit here or there. It’s especially noticeable during the third act when you realize the characters have little nuance.
But in the end, Into the Woods is a celebration of musicals themselves. An adaptation that reminds you of the kind of fun you can only get from seeing attractive people sing beautifully. Sometimes, that’s all you really need.