Into the Woods seems destined to be compared to the stage musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim on which it is based, so let’s cut to the chase—this film adaptation, although beautifully made and well cast, suffers by comparison to its source material.
Much of the sprightly humor of the stage production is gone, leaving a story that seems strangely solemn and subdued even before the darker, more introspective second half kicks in. The beautiful dissonance of Sondheim’s songs—several of which have been cut for time—and the dark palettes of most scenes in the shadowy woods only underscore this feeling of bleakness.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Into the Woods weaves together several fairy tales—Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel—with a new framing story about a baker, his wife, and their desire for a child. Characters make wishes about changing their fates, and we see these wishes come true in various ways as well as the actions of these characters behind the scenes. But then we begin to see the more dangerous consequences of those wishes being granted, in a way that suggests “happily ever after” is harder to come by than the Brothers Grimm might have imagined.
Although the casting is uniformly excellent—with standout turns by Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Daniel Huttlestone and James Corden—few of the musical numbers are smoothly integrated. The forward momentum of the tale comes to a halt while characters sing their thoughts, and although director Rob Marshall has done his utmost to blend songs in smoothly, they mostly come across as artificial and stilted. And vocals throughout are very workmanlike; no one does a poor job, but don’t look to anyone to give you delighted chills either. As the witch might put it, “they’re not good, they’re not bad, they’re just nice.”
Any story based on classic fairy tales will have its share of violence and sexuality, and although much of this is implied rather than shown, Into the Woods is in many ways a dark film. Parents should pre-screen this movie before taking sensitive or easily frightened children to see it. Is it worth seeing? I think so, but I also think it’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes.
Release Date: December 25, 2014 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Language: 1 (no cursing, use of God as an interjection, a few desultory references to people as peasants or wenches)
Nudity: 0 (the closest we get is a couple of vain princes ripping open their shirts, to comic effect)
Sexuality: 2 (strongly implied lust/pedophilia, implied extramarital activity)
Violence: 2 (strongly implied but not shown: character being swallowed alive, a character’s belly slit open, two characters having parts of their feet amputated, characters blinded by thorns and bird attacks, damage by a rampaging giant, and several characters falling to their deaths)