Review: Into the Woods

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There was some alarm when it was announced that the Disney would be making the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s distinctly anti-Disney musical, Into the Woods. Thankfully, there are no cute furry woodland creatures, and the somber overall tone of the piece is intact. Like Sondheim’s show, this film owes much more to Bruno Bettelheim than Walt Disney.

The plot is a mash-up of various Brothers Grimm characters–Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Cinderella, and Rapunzel encountering the dark night of their souls in the woods, which certainly represents our elemental fears. In his book, The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim posited that fairy tales were metaphors for our fears, whether they be losing our parents, our children, sexuality, or wholesale slaughter of our village.

The linchpin of the film is Sondheim’s own creation, a childless baker and his wife. The “witch next door” reveals that they are childless because his father stole from her garden, including some magic beans. But she will lift the curse if they find four items in three days.

Meanwhile, the other characters head into the dark woods to find the answer to their wish. Cinderella, of course, wants to go the ball and Jack is to sell his dried-out cow, even if she is his best friend; and Little Red Riding Hood is visiting her granny. There are two princes in this story–one falls in love with Cinderella at the ball, even though she runs from him every night, and another hears the lilting voice of Rapunzel, who is the adopted (kidnapped) daughter of the Witch, who keeps her in a doorless tower.

The first act of the film is a fairly cheery recitation of fairy tale tropes, with everyone getting their wish. But the second act is like a kid stepping all over his miniature play set, as everyone is attacked by a giant looking for revenge.

I mostly enjoyed Into the Woods, though it is for acquired tastes, as most of Sondheim is. The opening number, which repeats the phrase “Into the woods,” over and over, is very catchy, and I’m still humming it, but the other music is much more complex. Sondheim’s genius for lyrics is on display, especially in the Witch’s number about her garden:

‘Cause I caught him in the autumn
In my garden one night!
He was robbing me,
Raving me,
Rooting through my rutabaga,
Raiding my arugula and
Ripping up my rampion
(My champion! My favorite!)-

Who else could write a song name-checking various root vegetables?


The second act, though, takes a strong stomach. The giant creates mayhem across the village, and I may be stretching, but there seems to be a connection to the real-life destruction of war. Fairy tales are universal in their themes, and though the Brothers Grimm knew nothing of world wars, Sondheim and Lapine have applied modern horrors to the work.

There are changes from the stage musical. One character is given life who died in the musical, or rather they are basically dropped from the story. But others who died still die and are not saved by Disney pixie dust. Also, early in the story, the very creepy scene between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (played with brio by Johnny Depp) is left intact. His song, “Hello, Little Girl,” drips with pedophilia, and her song, after her “encounter” with him, “I Know Things Now,” could be (should be?) seen as a girl’s post-virginal outlook.

The film looks terrific, with fantastic photography by Dion Beebe and production design by Dennis Gassner. Rob Marshall, who seems to be the go-to guy for musicals today (for good or ill) manages to mostly stay out of the way, and let the source material alone. However, there is an unevenness of tone–at times the meta-jokes (such as Red Riding Hood saying to Cinderella: “You talk to birds?”), though engendering laughs, took me out of the story.

This extends to some in the cast, which is mostly excellent. I thought Meryl Streep’s Witch was a little too self-conscious, especially in the second act. But Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, James Corden as the baker, and Emily Blunt as the baker’s wife are terrific. As the two princes, Chris Pine gets much more to do than Billy Magnussen, and gets the best line: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

My grade for Into the Woods: B.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

One response »

  1. Great review! I appreciated the changes that I recognized and was unaware of the rest (such as someone living who was supposed to die).

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