Retelling fairy tales is a tricky business. Audiences love fairy tales and fairy tale characters in part because of their familiarity, and adding layers to what tend to be one-dimensional characters can overshadow what was beloved about them in the first place.
Into the Woods, which has been beloved of audiences and high-school dramatic clubs alike since its 1986 premiere, works in part because it both retells the traditional fairy tales and adds a twist ending, applying a touch of cynicism with a wink to modern irony. As penned by the great Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, A Little Night Music), the second half of the story essentially deconstructs the first.
Disney’s movie version struggles with that demarcation. The first half feels mostly predictable and the second half, in portraying what happens after “happily ever after,” often too dark.
In this remix of several Brothers Grimm tales, from a screenplay written by James Lapine (who wrote the book for the musical), the princesses Cinderella and Rapunzel (Anna Kendrick and Mackenzie Mauzy) gain some agency—including the freedom to be both indecisive and brave—and the princes some less charming habits. The witch has motives beyond just being “the bad guy” and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is a bit of a brat.
But Into the Woods isn’t just another retold fairy tale in the style of Maleficent and Mirror Mirror. It is also a musical in an era when good movie musicals are rare. And there are songs. Lots of songs.
In fact, Into the Woods is an old-fashioned movie musical in which the songs are far more heavily showcased than the plot. A viewer’s enjoyment of the film depends on how familiar she is with the source material or how tolerant of musical interludes (for this viewer, the answer to both is not very). The singing is done by actors rather than professional singers, but it’s not their execution that is uneven, it’s the staging of the various numbers.
The music is by Sondheim, which means (among other things) that the lyrics can be clever. But most of the songs are meant to be Big Moments on stage, where the music is the focal point and everything else comes to a stand still: a conceit that rarely translates well to screen. Moreover, the songs that depict flashbacks—such as Little Red Riding Hood’s description of being eaten—are filmed in such a stage-y way it’s like director Rob Marshall threw up his hands and decided to just film a play. Marshall’s decision to steer away from CGI, even filming on location in real forests, is a good thing in many other scenes and helps ground the film’s more magical moments.
There are some standout musical moments, too: “Agony,” in which Chris Pine as Prince Charming (along with Billy Magnussen, as Rapunzel’s Prince) demonstrates real musical chops as well as perfect comedic timing, and basically anything with Meryl Streep as the Witch but particularly “Stay With Me,” which she sings to Rapunzel.
The women of Into the Woods, in fact, are generally much more interesting than the men, perhaps as a consequence of subverting the fairy tales that make women prizes or damsels that play to the proactive male gaze. Here, the Witch is a protective mother, Rapunzel is kind but rebellious, and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) is funny and determined (and they all make serious mistakes through the course of the movie).
Yet somehow the women, and all the other characters in the film, remain shallow. Since it’s an ensemble, the movie does not follow any particular character long enough to provide the viewer a way into the world of the film (and since many of the main characters die, it’s hard to get too attached). It doesn’t help that most of the actors play up their characters’ shallow stereotypes in the first half to the point of caricature, while much of their heart and motivation comes out in the second half. Unfortunately, the movie takes too long to get there.
Into the Woods is more theme- than character-driven, but it treats themes like “no one is alone” (also the title of a song) and the value of experiential learning far more earnestly than they probably deserve. Johnny Depp’s Wolf teaches Little Red Riding Hood “many valuable things” (which almost kill her) and young Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and Cinderella must learn to “decide what’s good / decide alone” because they’ve lost their parents. The lesson of the film is that there is no black and white decision, even in a fairy tale world.
The story begins intentionally, overtly sincere and slowly unwinds expectations, but ultimately comes full circle to end on a fairy tale note in which several characters come together to start a nontraditional family. It does not quite have a fairy tale ending, but it is not realistic, either, nor does it fully deal with consequences (or entirely tie up the plot).
Into the Woods engages with the tropes of “happily ever after” even as it mocks them. It’s uneven and, like most fairy tales, provides questionable life lessons. But fans of the play may still enjoy it if watching through a filter of stage production magic, and movie musical fans will find it worth watching some terrific actors sing.
In order to keep Into the Woods a PG movie (for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material), filmmakers relied on innuendo and hints of violence off-screen. But there is still plenty here to make parents cringe (spoilers!): The wolf attempts to seduce Little Red Riding Hood and sings about her luscious flesh; the wolf eats two people; the Baker takes a knife to the sleeping wolf; the Witch’s magic is Disney-style scary; several characters are slapped or treated roughly by parental figures; a beloved pet dies; two characters contemplate adultery; characters steal; a prince is thrown from his horse and blinded by thorns; two characters are blinded by birds (according to the narrator); Cinderella’s stepmother cuts off parts of two characters’ feet (off-screen); characters conspire to kill a giant; multiple familiar characters die randomly.
Alicia Cohn is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics and freelance writer based in Denver. She tweets @aliciacohn.