Into The Woods: Film Review

I’ve been struggling with my review of the movie Into The Woods (2014). On the one hand, as pure entertainment you can bring your family to, (i.e. without containing very many obvious uncomfortable topics needing explanation later to innocent ones) like an ice cream dessert, I’d say it scores a 9 out of 10. Upon deeper scrutiny, on the other hand, if what you are looking for is a main course with an expert blend of taste, aromas, textures, and appearances, I’d have to give it a 7 out of 10. Read on if you want to hear why.

The movie as a dessert

The whole film is gorgeous to look at, from the costumes to sets to hair and makeup. The production values of this movie are top notch. As a result, it is easy to suspend your disbelief and willingly enter this world of fairy tales and meet the characters.

I was excited because there are actors I love in this (Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick), ones I was curious about (Chris Pine, Johnny Depp), and Meryl Streep is, well, Meryl Streep—you just know that she has a high level of quality to all her performances. It turns out that the entire cast gives excellent performances; there is no one who’s performance is glaringly off and distracts you from the story-they can all sing! Well, except you’re glaringly aware that it is Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep playing these “bad” characters.

Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics are still very enjoyable. Even now I am still humming tunes from the movie, a week after seeing it. The songs are memorable, and the lyrics move along the story, either providing exposition or character motivation.

For example, the song “Agony” is again a comedic highlight of the show. They even found a great location to shoot the song to further amp up the ability for the Princes to delightfully chew the scenery.

The conceit of the musical is still brilliant – take 4 different fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood) and have a new one (The Baker and his Wife) whose plot ties them all together (they must gather an item from each one to help break a witch’s curse on them). Act 1 ends when each fairy tale reaches the conclusion we know and expect of them. Act 2, however, is where things get interesting. This is the “ever after” portion of their stories, where the audience gets to feel a little smart to enjoy the cynicism of what happens after the happy endings, or uncomfortable because it’s veering away from those happy endings they expected.

The only things that don’t make this a straight 10 out of 10 as a dessert confection is that the timing of some of the lines are off, so they are not as funny as it could have been. Still, I had a very enjoyable time in the movie theatre while I was watching it, laughing in many places, and getting caught up in the songs.

The movie as a main course

It was after leaving the theatre and I started discussing it further with my husband T that I realized that it was not as satisfying as you hope a great piece of art (or main course) would be. (His review is here.)

I admit, I rewatched the DVD of the PBS broadcast from the 1991 cast (with Bernadette Peters as the witch) just days before going to see this movie. It’s a production that I love. I know it is unfair and unproductive to expect exactly the same thing on screen, but I do think it’s fair to hope the themes of the musical still hold up as solidly.

Alas, likely because Disney is the production company, many of the smaller details and plot points have been removed either to keep it more “family friendly” or to edit for time. (the PBS recording ran for over two and a half hours) This was a shame, as it removes one of the following each time it happens: context for certain lines or situations, character motivation, or layers of complexity within a situation.

(warning, spoilers ahead)

Examples of lost context

By removing the reprieve of the song “Agony” in the second act, where it is revealed that Prince Charming and his brother have respectively found (and lust after) Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, the context of why the Prince is alone in the woods when he encounters Cinderella is gone.

In addition, the suggestion that the encounter between Prince Charming and the Baker’s wife was consummated as opposed to merely kissing has been greatly toned down in the movie.

Both these changes greatly reduces the impact of the birds’ revelation of his infidelities to Cinderella. You would be more hurt by someone repeatedly spending time with another princess worth marrying (Sleeping Beauty), or a sexual affair, than with a single kissing make-out session with a peasant.

There is also a surprising abruptness to the end of Rapunzel’s storyline. Since she lives in this version you would figure there would be some cursory flash to her at the conclusion of the movie. My suspicion is that they filmed it as per the original plot with her death, but then removed it to lessen the body count.

Example of lost character motivation

Unlike the stage production, where there is an intermission and then a second act opening song, there is no passage of time between the wishes being fulfilled in the first act and the second act where the characters realize the consequences of the wishes don’t end up as they expect.

We don’t see Cinderella tire of her royal life, and the Prince bore of his life without a chase.  There isn’t any evidence of the strain in the relationship between the Prince and Cinderella. It removes the whole motivation for why Cinderella would choose to abandon her royal life in the castle, the flimsy excuse of the Prince’s make-out session with the Baker’s Wife notwithstanding.

Examples of lost complexity

The glaring example is the toning down of the sexual undertones between the predatory wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. They likely tried their best to rid the scene of all of it, but Johnny Depp being who he is, that was likely an impossible task. It’s too bad, as it would be some adult humour to wink at, and likely unnecessary as those who are innocent enough to want to protect from the double entendres probably wouldn’t have picked up on them anyway. They likely would just take the lyrics for face value, about a wolf wanting to eat some prey for food.

Another impact of having Rapunzel live is that the Witch’s grief for losing her child doesn’t have the same finality as if she died. There is always hope for reconciliation if the other lives. To me, this colours the Witch’s scenes differently where she is determined to give Jack to the woman giant, arguing with the other characters, singing the reprieve of “Children Will Listen”. The empty despondency isn’t there.

Also-you can’t top Bernadette Peters as the witch! Even as great as Meryl Streep is.

I will give props to the director Rob Marshall though for improving the staging of the song “On The Steps of the Palace”. This scene now occurs within the moment Cinderella’s shoe gets stuck on the stairs when running away, instead of as a retelling of the tale to the Baker’s wife in the woods. There is also a great use of special visual effects here to both convey the stoppage of time and the fairy tale magic of the situation.

The final tasting notes

For all these reasons, I had to lower my rating to a 7 out of 10 if I was comparing to all my expectations for this movie. So depending on what type of movie you are looking for, you will either be delighted or wishing it was a bit better.