When Alan Horn announced the cast list of Disney’s Into the Woods at the 2013 D23 Expo, my inner musical theater geek went “Yaaaaaaaaasssssss!!!” I love musicals, Meryl Streep and fairytales. Needless to say, my expectations were high.
I had little knowledge of the musical Into the Woods at the time, but when I happened upon a recording of the original Broadway production on Netflix, I was excited to see what Disney had signed on for. I started out delighted by the performances of Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleeson and enthralled with the fairytale mashup. My high hopes quickly turned sour as the very adult, very dark, very depressing musical proceeded. By the end, I hated it and only a handful of songs stood out as memorable.
Disney has made some changes to the show for their film version. The biggest omission is sex, which is absent in this PG version. The Big Bad Wolf is purely interested in eating Little Red Riding Hood (in the show, he is lusting after her to the extent that he grinds his exposed wolf member in her direction). Any infidelities characters experience are limited to kissing as well. Pacing issues have been corrected with a few deleted songs. In general, these are the changes I was expecting them to make.
The film version has its strengths, the biggest of which is the casting. Few could top Bernadette Peters’ witch, but Meryl Streep adds so many unique quirks to the character and her delivery of the Witch’s part in the prologue is perfect (“Greens, greens, and nothing but greens”). Anna Kendrick is delightful as the indecisive Cinderella, Tracey Ullman is hilarious as Jack’s mother, Christine Baranski steals every scene she’s in as the Stepmother, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are perfect princes, and both child stars (Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huddlestone as Red Riding Hood and Jack) give memorable performances. The true stars of the film, however, are James Corden and Emily Blunt as The Baker and his Wife. Corden, in particular, carries the emotional weight of the story and makes it seem effortless.
Set design, costume design and cinematography are also amazing in this film. The world created for Into the Woods is dark and mysterious and every shot is beautiful. The costumes are gorgeous, in particular both versions of Meryl Streep’s witch (an old hag vs. a beautiful enchantress) and Cinderella’s gold dress and shoes. I expect the film to be nominated in all three categories at the next Academy Awards.
The inherent problem with Disney’s Into the Woods is that it is the same show, merely adapted for the screen. It starts off brilliantly and the way the characters’ paths cross is fun to watch. However, the whole thing falls apart when the story takes a dark turn following happily ever after. In the end, the characters that are still alive seem like the unlucky ones. Is that how a Disney film is supposed to make me feel?
My biggest problem with Into the Woods is not that it’s dark or depressing. After all, I love shows like The Phantom of the Opera and the film version of Les Miserables. My big criticism is that the messages are beaten over your head so heavily in this show. No character is purely good, nor is anybody fully bad; everyone is grey and this theme is constantly thrown in your face. A statement about mankind’s inability to be fully content with what we have slaps you so many times by the time the credits roll that I felt concussed. I went from loving characters to hating them so quickly that by the end, I didn’t really care about any of them anymore.
The saving grace of the film and the show is the music. Not all of it is great or memorable, but there are a few standout songs that will be stuck in your head. My favorites are the finale version of “Children Will Listen,” a fun duet between the Butcher and Baker called “It Takes Two,” a rival duet between the princes called “Agony,” and the haunting “No One is Alone.” However, there is one song that is used so often that it becomes a nuisance. It’s the titular song, “Into the Woods,” which is so repetitive and simple that it quickly goes from cute to despicable. The lyrics are so easy to mock that my friend and I made up our own on our way out of the theater. It sums up my whole reaction to this film:
“Into the theater
To buy some popcorn
To watch a film that wasn’t good.”
I give Into the Woods 2.5 out of 5 cows as white as milk.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.