‘Into the Woods’ Review: Grimm Fandango

'Into the Woods'

Movie Rating:


The exceedingly talented Stephen Sondheim has seen a few of his musicals get transformed into films, and the results have been mixed at best. It’s not easy to translate Sondheim to the screen, if only because his musicals are so specifically designed for the stage. There have been exceptions of course, provided that a filmmaker with just the right set of skills and a connection to the source material gets hold of the project. Richard Lester did an admirable job with ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ and Tim Burton did some excellent work on ‘Sweeney Todd’. Sondheim’s fairy tale mashup ‘Into the Woods’ seemed just right for a big Disney epic. Then Rob Marshall signed on and that was the end of that.

For those who have never seen the stage show, ‘Into the Woods’ is a big thumping musical mashup of a variety of classic fairy tales (mostly of the Grimm variety). Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) bounces through the woods to grandma’s house before being stopped by a disturbingly lecherous Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp). Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent to town by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell a cow, only to come back with magic beans. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) sneaks away to a big ball and is pursued by a handsome prince (Chris Pine). A couple of married bakers (Emily Blunt and James Corden) are tasked by a wicked witch (Meryl Streep) to find a collection of special magical props connected to the other stories. (That witch also has a daughter named Rapunzel.)

These tales crisscross and bounce off of each other in a creepy woods and all end up in a happily ever after place, until that comes crushing down. The moment that happens is one of the most awkward in the film. It feels like the ending, and it’s supposed to. On stage, the switcheroo is an act break allowing audiences the chance to take five for an intermission while expecting something new to follow. On screen, it merely signals to viewers that the film they thought was over is only just getting started. It’s a real sigh-inducing, butt-numbing moment.

Sondheim’s musical is a magical, thrilling, perverse and brilliant use of familiar fairy tales to explore the unpredictable, tragic, magic nature of life. Rob Marshall’s film, on the other hand, turns all that into a Fractured Fairy Tale goof, with cut rate Tim Burton visuals, stunt-casting, and narrative confusion. The decision to cast Jack and Red Riding Hood as kids might seem like a bright commercial choice on paper, but it hurts the young adults’ coming-of-age story and makes the perversity of the Big Bag Wolf segment deeply uncomfortable. (While Depp is perfectly fine in the role, his flashy costume is so embarrassingly off-base that it deserves a special achievement Razzie.)

The design of the film is meant to be forebodingly Gothic, but looks more like a high school production trying and failing to capture some Burton magic. The script chops the play down to two hours by necessity, and in the process turns a carefully structured tale into a disjointed mess. There’s no sense of pacing or tempo. It’s just a rush of songs and visual effects sequences desperately fighting for attention. The end result is far more confusing and exhausting than fun or resonant.

None of this is to say that ‘Into the Woods’ is a complete and utter failure. Most of Sondheim’s songs remain and they’ve been beautifully recorded. (Marshall might not be much of a cinematic storyteller, but the guy at least respects the music, and that’s often half the battle with these things.) Reduced to a show reel of the best songs, you might even consider the film a success. However, when they’re strung together in such a haphazard way, the songs fall apart.

Much of the stunt-casting is rather wonderful, especially Meryl Streep’s cranky witch, Anna Kendrick’s charming would-be princess (Kendrick can’t do anything less than charming), Emily Blunt’s goofy/sad baker’s wife (though the attempts to conceal the actress’ real-life pregnancy are quite distracting), Tracey Ullman’s silly and sardonic mother, and Chris Pine’s ironic Prince Charming.

In fits and starts, Disney’s ‘Into the Woods’ captures the magic of Sondheim’s musical. Unfortunately, it never manages to maintain any quality consistency. That may be as much a result of the stage show being simply too big, weird and theatrical to work on film, as it is a failure of this specific filmmaking team. It would have been nice to see a more gifted director try and maybe even succeed to bring ‘Into the Woods’ to the screen, but at least master-of-mediocrity Rob Marshall did the best job he could. That’s something. Not much, but something.


  1. Elizabeth

    I feel like the author went in wanting to hate this film and found ways to do exactly that. Some of the criticisms are just ridiculous. Saying it looks like a “high school production.” Really? With the kind of money involved it could never look anything like that. Maybe there’s some truth to the second part about “trying and failing to capture some Burton magic,” but I don’t really see any point where they were going for that level of visual excess.

    Im not sure what the issue with Jack and Red Riding Hood being cast as kids. The musical is about the realities of growing up which continues to happen at every age. The Wolf’s song is supposed to be uncomfortable and in some ways it was daring for Disney cast someone so young in that role. Americans like to act like only boys are sexual creatures but that is nonsense. As for the Wolf’s “embarrassingly off-base” costume, having never seen the stage show, I googled images for it and saw that Depp’s costume was right in line with them.

    I’m also not sure what “quite distracting” things were done to hide Emily Blunt’s pregnancy. Having read this review before seeing the film, I was actually looking for them and never really saw anything distracting. IM not sure what I missed.

    The biggest weakness seems to be the same weakness that the stage show has: Act 2. As a Disney production, I’m not surprised that it falters in showing that “Happily Ever After” isn’t realistic. The first half of the movie sticks pretty close to the stage show (minus a few characters like the Mysterious Man) and it seems like a lot of effort went into that. Then it just feels like either they ran out of steam or just really didn’t want to do Act 2. It was honestly a mess. The stage show seems kind of messy too from plot descriptions I’ve read (such as stepping into meta-fiction by trying to give the Narrator to the Giantess). But there were quite a few songs cut out from that section and the fates of several characters were left unanswered.

    If I were rating this, I’d give Act 1 a 4-star score and Act 2 would get 2 1/2 stars.

    • Phil Brown

      Hi Elizabeth. Believe it or not, I did actually go into this hoping to like it. I’m a big fan of Sondheim and this musical in particular. I am happy to address your concerns about my review though.

      –In terms of my “high school production’ comment, obviously this is a big and expensive movie. I was exaggerating there to make a point. I did found that it looked a little cheap, tossed off, and needlessly phony by the standards of these sorts of blockbuster musicals though. That was what I meant.

      In regards to you not seeing the attempts at Burton-level visual excess, then we have to just agree to disagree. I’d point to pretty well every frame as an example, but that’s just me.

      -Now, the kids/adults casting issue. I’ve always felt that the coming-of-age element of Into The Woods was based more on young adult growing into themselves. It’s poignant on stage when all of the characters are the same age. The Jack/Red Riding characters being turned into kids felt pointless to me, hurting that thematic core purely to bring in a more kids and family audiences. As for the sexuality issue, I wasn’t trying to be sexist by any means. Of course young girls have a sense of sexuality. My issue is that it took a sequence that was about a leering wolf/pimp stalking a young woman and turned into into a scene of a pedophile stalking a child. That felt deeply inappropriate to me and really hurt what I’ve always loved about that sequence. As for JD’s costume, that again falls into taste. I thought it was really ugly, corny, and cheap in a way that took me out of the movie entirely. If you liked it, power to ya!

      -I’m with you on Act 2 being the big failing in the movie. I just don’t think it’s a failure in the stage show as well.

      Hope that clears things up. I honestly didn’t go into this movie wanting to hate it. I wanted to love it and I didn’t. Sorry if that’s not how my review came across.

  2. This movie was definitely made for people familiar with the stage show and willing to accept that. My only issue with it was that they should have gone for at least a PG-13 instead of PG. It was just a touch too tamed-down for me.

    I loved it, but yes, it has some issues, and it’s mostly in general pacing and a lack of bite. The former is forgivable for fans, the latter… Less so.

  3. Streep is fourteen million years to old for the part she plays and vocally not equipped properly. The previews looked horrible. The casting seemed like it was done for the most name recognition possible. After seeing the original cast video with its gorgeous vocals (especially Bernadette Peters) I was totally disgusted with the way it looked in previews. I won’t be wasting my cash on this crappy looking movie.

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