‘Into the Woods’ Is Enchanting but PG: Primarily for Grown-ups

As your trusted filmic consumer reporter, before I tell you anything else about Into the Woods I should say this: It’s not a children’s movie.

Or at least let’s put it this way: It is not your typical uplifting, kid-friendly flick in which plucky heroes and heroines prevail, while creepy villains either get their due or are converted to goodness in the end.

Yes, it’s a musical about fairy tales and yes it’s a Disney release. But without giving too much away, I’d warn you that by the end, a number of the principal characters have been killed. You should also be wary of some of the film’s marketing, such as the trailer that invokes Disney’s previous hit, Frozen. Any parents who promise children that Into the Woods is the next Frozen may have years of therapy bills they’ll be needing to pay off.

The film’s story has a backstory. It began in 1976 when psychologist Bruno Bettelheim published The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. In this groundbreaking and highly influential book, Bettelheim examined the original Grimm tales, before they had been sanitized and brightened up by, among others, Walt Disney. Taking a Freudian viewpoint, Bettelheim explained how these stories could help children grow by allowing them to symbolically process their darkest feelings and fears.

Then we jump ahead to 1986 and find James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim working on a new Broadway musical. Using some of Bettelheim’s insight as inspiration, the two men concocted a musical that puts an even grimmer spin on Grimm. Into the Woods features Jack (the kid with the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, along with two invented characters, the Baker and his Wife. All of them need to journey into the dark woods outside the kingdom where they live to make their wishes come to pass.

The show opened on Broadway in 1987. It’s been revived a few times, recorded for television, and now makes it to the big screen in a version directed by Pittsburgh’s own Rob Marshall.

Sondheim and His View of Wishes Come True

If you’ve been luckier than me and haven’t spent most of your life trapped in a musical comedy gulag, I need to give you a heads up and point out a name I rushed past in the above précis: composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. You may or may not know that Sondheim is the most important artist to be born in the 20th century and how, over the last 50 years, he has changed the course of theater in America.

People who know Sondheim’s work would instinctively hesitate to bring a child to one of his shows. Sondheim is famous for exploring the darker side of human nature and, above everything else, there is rarely a flat-out hero or villain in a Sondheim piece. For children (and for too many adults) who have been conditioned by Hollywood to know immediately whom to root for and whom to hiss at, a Sondheim show is going to be very frustrating.

In Into the Woods, all of the characters get their wishes—Jack gets his gold, Little Red a fur cape, and both Cinderella and Rapunzel get their princes. But that happens halfway through the movie. The rest of the film is about understanding the cost of those wishes. Jack, for instance, has his golden egg and harp … but he had to kill the giant to get them. The giant’s wife—who, don’t forget, was the soul of kindness to Jack—is now blinded by grief and rage as she comes down to ground level looking for Jack. She’s very tall and the humans are very small, and, well …

That’s the most obvious example but all the characters are confronted with the same conundrum: Is what I got worth the cost of the getting? Or, even simpler, be careful what you wish for.

Director Marshall, on the whole, has done a perfectly serviceable job bringing this show to the screen. You might complain that the film lacks any spark of originality; that all Marshall has done is film a gorgeous but by-the-numbers version of the play. On the other hand, when you think about the reprehensible job Tim Burton did to Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd, I guess we can be grateful Marshall didn’t monkey around too much with the source material.

Getting the Stars to Align

What Marshall has done is assembled an absolutely stellar cast. This is very much an ensemble piece and everyone not only shines but helps their fellow actors shine. What’s especially enjoyable is that most of them shine in ways you don’t expect.

Meryl Streep plays the Witch, the linchpin of the story, and since it’s Meryl you know the acting’s great. What surprised me was the sheer power and beauty of her singing voice. In Mamma Mia! she did respectable work with not-very-interesting music. Even though Sondheim is notoriously difficult to sing, Streep blasts her way through the score and her final number, “Last Midnight,” actually raised the little hairs on my arms.

James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his Wife both display quite impressive sets of pipes and, as a bonus, their onscreen chemistry is palpable. We wind up caring a great deal about what happens to these two.

Playing the princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are having the time of their lives finding the humor in these two characters who are endowed with everything (position, money, looks) except brains.

Anna Kendrick’s turn as Cinderella is as complicated as the character is written. She is, after all, a woman who runs away from a prince and Kendrick’s performance goes a long way in making us understand why. Tracey Ullman, Daniel Huttlestone, and Lilla Crawford also sing wonderfully and play their characters—Jack’s mother, Jack, and Little Red—with humor and depth. Only Johnny Depp, in a cameo as Little Red’s Wolf, seems out of place. It’s a tricky role requiring a specific type of performer to make work, and it isn’t Depp.

Film versions of Sondheim’s work have been legendarily bad: Gypsy, A Little Night Music, The Last of Sheila, Sweeney Todd, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. While Into the Woods doesn’t hit the same heights as the best of the bunch, West Side Story, it certainly comes the closest.

Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based critic and writer.