At first glance, it seems like an impossible proposition: a Walt Disney Studios adaptation of a beloved musical that adroitly skewers the simplistic morality of fairy tales. Could a Disneyfied version of Into the Woods make sense, or would the two opposing ideologies cancel each other out, leaving a handful of songs, a quartet of griping characters, and none of the insight?
Luckily, there’s history when it comes to Disney sanitizing the darker corners of the Grimm Brothers’ psyche. The 1950 animated adaptation of Cinderella might feature an infestation of friendly vermin, but the Wicked Stepmother doesn’t force her two daughters to cut off parts of their feet in order to fit the golden slipper, nor do Cinderella’s swarm of doves blind her sisters by pecking out their eyes during a wedding. Sondheim, however, keeps the gruesome parts of the original story, and so does Marshall, whose Woods, to his credit, are as thorny and treacherous as could be hoped for in a PG-rated production. Cinematographer Dion Beebe, who previously worked with Marshall on Nine and Memoirs of a Geisha, conjures a barren, forbidding locale for the characters to venture into, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the scariest things lurking in the woods are their own unspoken desires.
Right from the outset, Into the Woods gently pokes holes in the fairy-tale imperative of dreams and schemes, with each character listing their wishes in the prologue. The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) yearn for a child; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to a festival at the palace like the rest of her brutish family; poverty-stricken Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracey Ullman) wish that their cow would give them some milk; and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) desires a loaf of bread to take to her grandmother in the woods, but also a sticky bun (or four). The Baker and his Wife have been cursed by a Witch (Meryl Streep), after his father stole vegetables from her garden many years ago, a crime that resulted in the Witch’s wizened appearance. The Witch also stole the Baker’s sister in infancy, raising her in a tower without doors, where the only form of access comes via the prisoner’s hair (the child, Rapunzel, is played by Mackenzie Mauzy).
To lift the curse, the Witch orders the Baker and his Wife to find a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold and bring them to her within three days. Each object is a challenge, but also an irreplaceable part of a character’s lore: Cinderella’s slipper, Rapunzel’s hair, Little Red Riding Hood’s cape, and Jack’s cow. Like Sondheim stripping stories into their component parts and reassembling them into his story, the Baker and his Wife pursue the four items as the separate tales unfold. Kendrick’s wistful, understated Cinderella enlists the help of birds to complete a challenge given to her by her stepmother (Christine Baranski), and makes a wish at her mother’s grave, after which she’s magically clothed in finery from head to toe. The Baker’s wife trades Jack his cow for a handful of beans, telling him that they’re magic (which, inevitably, they are), and Jack climbs a beanstalk and returns with armfuls of gold. A prince (Billy Magnussen) hears Rapunzel singing and falls in love with her, leading her to resent her isolation, and a Wolf (Johnny Depp) entreats Little Red to stray from her path further into the woods, before eating her.
Among all the anxiety over a family-friendly adaptation of Into the Woods, one of the most problematic elements is the Wolf, whose consumption of Little Red Riding Hood is very much allegorical. “Look at that flesh, pink and plump, hello, little girl,” the Wolf sings, musing over the “scrumptious carnality” of having both grandmother and Little Red for dinner on the same day. Originally, YouTube star Sophia Grace Brownlee was reportedly cast in the role, but her age (eight at the time) paired with the Wolf’s overtly sexual pursuit of his prey was deemed troubling. Lilla Crawford, who played the title role in Annie on Broadway in 2012, is a teenager, and gives the character a more plausible curiosity, as well as a notable shift in maturity after she’s rescued from the belly of the beast. Still, Depp’s Wolf is carnivorous in more ways than one. “And what might be in your basket?” he asks Little Red as he ogles her midsection, one eyebrow raised. It’s the kind of double entendre younger viewers will miss, but it’s enough for adults to infer the subtext in the loss of Little Red’s innocence. “He made me feel excited—well, excited and scared,” she sings to the Baker in “I Know Things Now.” “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit … not.”
School productions of Into the Woods often stage the first act, which culminates in a happy ending for all, and skip the second, which follows the characters into the more realistic aftermath of having all their dreams come true. Marshall, thankfully, doesn’t, but without an intermission, the film loses some momentum in its second, darker hour. The Witch is transformed back to her spectacular, Oscar-ready self, but she loses her ability to do magic. The Baker and his Wife have a child, but they’re still wishing for more (a bigger house, for the Baker to hold his baby, which he seems to fear). Kendrick admirably conveys Cinderella’s ambivalence to the Prince throughout his pursuit of her, meaning that their marriage feels unsatisfactory before it even begins, and becomes even more so. Meanwhile a magic bean is discarded in the woods, allowing another giant (a woefully underused Frances de la Tour) is able to come down to earth and seek revenge on Jack for killing her husband.
It’s in this second act that Sondheim seems to make a case for moral ambiguity, but Marshall doesn’t so much probe the limitations of categorizing things as good and evil as he attempts to tie up loose ends in a sadder, wiser bow. Still, the stellar ensemble cast finds nuance in the intricacies of Lapine’s screenplay. Corden is particularly intriguing when he confronts the terrors of parenthood, a subject also wrangled gorgeously by Streep’s Witch in “Stay With Me” (when she pleads with Rapunzel not to grow up and leave her) and in the closing number, “Children Will Listen.” “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true,” she croons, tender and vulnerable. “Princes, yes, but wolves and humans too.” It’s a virtuoso encapsulation of the love, sadness, joy, rage, and fear involved in sending children out into the world, and one of the most exceptional vocal performances in the film.
As the Baker’s Wife, Blunt is similarly adept, faced with tackling an immensely practical character who struggles when confronted with fantasy made real. While she and Kendrick deliver gracefully understated and thoughtful performances, Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine) is gloriously, madly over-the-top, oozing panache from every pore. “I was made to be charming, not sincere,” he tells Cinderella, and his duet with Rapunzel’s Prince (Magnussen), “Agony,” is a breast-beating, hair-tearing lesson in melodrama. The only weak link is Huttlestone as Jack, who seems too young for the role, and whose lines get lost in delivery. When he sings about a “big tall terrible lady giant … and she gives you food, and she gives you rest, and she draws you close to her giant breast, and you know things now that you never knew before,” the insinuation of what exactly he’s learned up in the sky is either lost or downright creepy.
Still, when it comes to navigating how to be both a family-friendly holiday crowdpleaser and a faithful adaptation of a tricky but profound musical, Into the Woods is mostly golden. It has gorgeous, sugar-spun spectacle and bleak, terrifying landscapes; brilliantly refined performances cut with just the right amount of pageantry; familiar archetypal characters and conflict that’s both modern and ageless. Perhaps it doesn’t delve quite as deeply into the philosophical conundrums within our favorite stories as the musical does, but it doesn’t ignore them, either. “Must it all be either less or more, plain or grand?” the Baker’s Wife asks, after a particularly out-of-character moment in the woods. “Is it always ‘or,’ is it never ‘and’?” In this case, for once, it isn’t necessary to choose.