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“Into The Woods” Is A Highly Successful Fairy Tale for Adults

Into the Woods

Photo by: Peter Mountain @ 2014 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

David Ives - published on 12/27/14

Intriguing moral dilemmas in adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical

They cut out my favorite song.

Now, I’m not going to complain about it too much. I mean, if I can sit through all of the changes they made to “The Hobbit” and still enjoy those movies, I can certainly handle having a few tunes dropped from “Into The Woods” to help shorten up the film’s running time. Besides, it’s not like we’re talking about adapting The Bible here. No one is going to get some wrong headed ideas about God just because the filmmakers felt the need to change parts of the story (yes, I’m still griping about “Exodus: Gods and Kings”).

Still, they cut out my favorite song, and beyond the fact that it annoys me, the choice to do so actually does have some negative consequences for the final act of the film. But I’m jumping ahead.

“Into The Woods” is, as you probably already know, the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award winning Broadway musical which takes a number of tales from The Brothers Grimm and mashes them together in order to explore a variety of complex themes. Yes, I said complex. Despite being a Disney movie full of fairy princesses, this isn’t necessarily a movie made for the kiddies.

As in the stage play, the movie begins with a long prologue introducing each of the ensemble cast as they prepare to head into the titular woods, most for familiar reasons. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to her grandmother’s house, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is off to the market to sell his old white cow, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is going to visit the grave of her mother to ask for help in getting to the ball to meet the Prince (Chris Pine).

The only characters who aren’t original to the source material are the baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). Suffering under a curse which has rendered them childless, the pair have been instructed by a local witch (Meryl Streep) to obtain the four special items she needs to lift the curse; a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, some hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. I’ll give you one guess as to where the frantic couple are going to try and get most of those ingredients.

The chaos that ensues as the lives of the various characters begin to intertwine is as fun as anything you’ll see onscreen this year. And as for the music, well, it’s Sondheim isn’t it? What’s there left to say about a composer whose first job on Broadway was penning the lyrics to “West Side Story?” His very first job! Needless to say, every song in the film (every one they kept, that is) is a winner.

Of course, no matter how good the song, a bad singer can kill it. Fortunately, that’s not a problem here. Despite the fact that most of the cast is not associated with musical theater, there’s not a dud in the bunch. Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt certainly aren’t going to make anyone forget Bernadette Peters’ witch or Joanna Gleason’s baker’s wife, but they carry their showcase tunes with aplomb. Johnny Depp comes the closest to flubbing his part as the creepily pedophilic Wolf, not quite having the vocal range to hit the necessary high notes, but he soldiers through it well enough. The biggest surprise musically may be neo-Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, whose anguished over-the-top duet with fellow prince Billy Magnussen is pretty much a showstopper (take that, William Shatner). All in all, it’s a great ride as each of the characters obtain their heartfelt wishes and come to believe they’ve been ushered into their happily ever afters.

But the film’s not quite over yet. As the story enters into what would be the stage play’s second act, everybody discovers they haven’t quite experienced their eucatastrophe just yet. Instead, having had their various wishes granted, the players soon realize that doggedly chasing your desires can have dire consequences. Among the hard lessons they come to learn are that doing evil for a good reason only brings sorrow in the end, that what appears enticing may not actually be good for you, and that the sins of parents can weigh heavily upon a family for generations to come. In these things, like all good fairy tales, “Into The Woods” echoes what J. R. R. Tolkien described as the one great and true fairy story of the Gospels.

Unfortunately, the movie teeters off its moral center just a bit at the end. While the filmmakers changed a few of the lyrics here and there, they left in the one bit of verse that has troubled many a listener over the years. Having been left battered and confused by the tragic events which have transpired, the baker and Cinderella try to comfort Jack and Red with a song containing a line which goes, "Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.”

It’s entirely possible that, given its placement in the story, the line is meant to be interpreted as a warning not to blindly accept labels placed on people without checking to see if they’re true. But it can also be taken as plain old subjectivism, the idea that there is no absolute truth, just the reality we create for ourselves in our own head. Once you accept that notion, then you’re just a hop and a skip away from moral relativism, and I shouldn’t have to tell you what the last few Popes have had to say about that particular evil. It’s a poorly chosen lyric that leaves a bitter taste in an otherwise sweet experience.

The movie’s other fault, the one directly related to the fact that they left out my favorite song (for no good reason), is that the end of the movie feels oddly condensed and rushed. Without some of the omitted material, the story loses a bit of its emotional impact during its final moments. Now, whether that’s just my experience because I’m familiar with the play, I can’t say. Perhaps the finale won’t feel as lacking to those who come to the movie fresh. But I doubt it.

Even taking into account my nitpicks, though, “Into The Woods” is still a treat, much better than anyone first thought it would be when it was announced Disney was producing the film. The much feared sanitized toddler-friendly musical full of soon-to-be Disney princess products never materialized. Instead, “Into The Woods” is about as good and faithful adaptation of the stage play as one could hope for, with all of its adult themes and memorable music intact. Okay, most of its memorable music. Just not my favorite song. Not that I’m bitter about that or anything.

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