Film Review: ‘Into the Woods’

Into The Woods Movie

Wolves howl, giants roar and a cast of fairy-tale all-stars seek enlightenment in this solid, satisfying film version of Stephen Sondheim's beloved Broadway musical.

“Be careful what you wish for” warn the ads for “Into the Woods” — an apt summary of the movie’s theme, and also the mindset of many a Stephen Sondheim fan ever since it was announced that the composer’s popular 1987 Broadway musical was being turned into a film. But such fears are swiftly allayed by director Rob Marshall, who, um, marshals Sondheim’s cavalcade of fairy-tale all-stars on to the screen in a faithful, never particularly inspired, but supremely respectable version — one that outclasses Marshall’s prior “Chicago” and “Nine,” to say nothing of this season’s two-ton musical monstrosity, “Annie.” Strong reviews and family appeal should earn Disney much more than a bunch of magic beans at the holiday box office, with a long shelf life to follow.

It certainly took Hollywood long enough  to see the forest for the trees where “Into the Woods” was concerned. A film version was first bandied about in the mid-’90s at Sony (with Goldie Hawn, Cher and Steve Martin among the potential cast), then put into development deep-freeze for the next two decades. During that time, “Woods” was revived twice on the New York stage (including director Timothy Sheader’s brilliant open-air production in Central Park in 2012) and could be felt as an influence on the “Shrek” movies and (especially) Disney’s “Enchanted.” But the announcement that Disney was finally making “Woods” still brought with it no shortage of anxieties (some fueled by a misquoted Sondheim interview): namely, that the Mouse House would sand down the less family-friendly elements of the show, including its lascivious pederast wolf, an episode of marital infidelity, and a second-act body count to rival Sondheim’s own “Sweeney Todd.”

For all those reasons and more, the chief virtue of this “Into the Woods” is a feeling of relief. Marshall hasn’t made one of the great movie musicals here, but he hasn’t bungled it, either — far from it. Aficionados who know the show by heart will fully recognize what they see here (and actually be able to see it, after the frantic, seizure-inducing editing of “Chicago” and “Nine”), while new audiences will more than get the gist, a touch condensed and Disneyfied perhaps, but to little overall detriment. If so much as one tween viewer adds Sondheim to his or her iPod playlist alongside the likes of “Let it Go,” all will have been worthwhile.

Taking greater inspiration from “The Uses of Enchantment” author Bruno Bettelheim than from Uncle Walt, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who also earns a screenplay credit here) pluck a dozen or so characters from the iconic fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, add in a few of their own invention, and set them on a tragicomic collision course in which “happily ever after” comes with a litany of fine-print conditions.

The lineup includes a humble baker (the very appealing James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), whose bake shop is frequented by a bratty, shoplifting Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and who live next door to a haggard old witch (Meryl Streep) with many axes to grind. Long ago, the witch abducted the baker’s infant sister, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and cursed the baker himself with sterile genes  punishment for the sins of his estranged father (who stole magic beans from the witch’s garden, once upon a time). But the curse can be reversed, the witch announces, provided the baker and his wife procure the necessary ingredients in the span of 72 hours: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

It is that quest which leads the childless couple into said woods, and into contact with all manner of fellow travelers running to or away from something: the farm boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), reluctantly off to market to sell his beloved but milk-dry cow; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), giving chase to a confounded Prince Charming (Chris Pine); and Little Red herself, weighing mother’s advice about strangers against the dandyish charms of a certain Mr. Wolf (a lip-smacking Johnny Depp, in slanted fedora and a kind of hirsute smoking jacket). For Sondheim and Lapine, these woods are as much a psychological space as a physical one — an existential crucible where innocence is lost, wisdom gained and the difficulty felt of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, be they golden or giant-sized. Freed from the literal belly of the beast, Red Riding Hood sings that her lupine adventure made her feel scared, yes, but also excited, before concluding, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?/And a little bit not.” Meanwhile, after her own illicit wooded liaison, the baker’s wife wonders, “Is it always ‘or?’/Is it never ‘and?’” — one of those deceptively simple Sondheim lyrics that feels like a definitive expression of life’s unending compromise.

Marshall, who’s never seemed to know quite what to do with a movie camera and an editing machine, is helped considerably here by the fact that “Woods” (unlike his previous musical films) has no major dances to flash-cut into incoherence. And where both “Chicago” and “Nine” labored to present their musical numbers as fantasy sequences, lest multiplex-goers be alarmed by the sight of actors suddenly bursting into song, “Woods” harbors no such concerns, embracing its theatricality down to the smallest details of costume and set design. (“The trees are just wood,” Sondheim’s characters sing, but the ones in Marshall’s film, care of production designer Dennis Gassner, look closer to fiberglass.) We’re a long — and probably wise — way here from the bigger-budget version of the film originally proposed, complete with elaborate creature effects from the Jim Henson workshop. The movie doesn’t need the extra razzle-dazzle because the real magic is there in Sondheim’s music, which Marshall allows to come through mostly unimpeded (save for a few deleted reprises) in Jonathan Tunick’s marvelous original orchestrations, conducted by longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani.

Both men also worked on Tim Burton’s 2007 film version of “Sweeney Todd” (starring Depp as the eponymous demon barber), a stylistically bolder and more accomplished film than “Into the Woods.” If comparisons must be made, however, then “Woods” is the better sung of the two, by a generally superb cast who catch the tricky tonal shifts from cheeky satire to pathos and back again. Decked out with a long gray mane and a face of Grand Canyon crags, Streep brings a most amusing petulance to the witch (whom Bernadette Peters played as more of a cloying Jewish mother in the original Broadway production). Pine makes for a hilariously preening, clueless Prince, as does Billy Magnussen as his equally charming and insincere princely brother (who longs for fair Rapunzel). Their witty duet, “Agony,” performed in the midst of a babbling brook, is one of the film’s most dynamic numbers. But as onstage, the richest part here is that of the baker’s wife, a loyal helpmeet who can’t help but wonder if she’s cut out for grander things, and who pays dearly for that curiosity. And Blunt (once again under Streep’s thumb, as in “The Devil Wears Prada”) has just the right nurturing yet wistful air to make the character heartbreaking in spite of (or rather, because of) her all-too-human flaws.

For the screen, Lapine has somewhat condensed the show’s second half, diluting the sense that the characters, having achieved their ostensible goals by intermission, still long for something more. Mostly, though, the second-act doozies are still here: the deaths, the betrayals and the buck-passing standoff with a very angry female giant (Frances de la Tour). All of that should send wise children and their parents out into the night mulling the complex nature of love and loss, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and the things both good and ill we pass on from one generation to the next. “Anything can happen in the woods,” goes one Sondheim lyric, and the same might be said of Hollywood musicals. Sometimes, by happy luck, they manage to get one right.

Film Review: 'Into the Woods'

Reviewed at DGA Theater, New York, Nov. 28, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 124 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Lucamar/Marc Platt production. Produced by John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt, Callum McDougall. Co-producers, Angus More Gordon, Michael Zimmer.

Crew

Directed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay, James Lapine, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim, Lapine. Camera (color, Arri Alexa HD, Fotokem prints), Dion Beebe; editor, Wyatt Smith; music and lyrics, Sondheim; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; score adaptation, David Krane; music producer, Mike Higham; music supervisors, Paul Gemignani, Mike Higham; musical staging, John DeLuca, Rob Marshall; production designer, Dennis Gassner; supervising art director, Chris Lowe; art directors, Andrew Bennett, Ben Collins, Mary Mackenzie; set decorator, Anna Pinnock; costume designer, Colleen Atwood; make-up and hair designer, Peter Swords King; sound (Dolby Digital), John Casali; supervising sound editors, Renee Tondelli, Blake Leyh; re-recording mixers, Mike Prestwood Smith, Michael Keller; visual effects supervisor, Matt Johnson; visual effects producer, Kenrick Wallace; visual effects, MPC, Atomic Arts, Digital Dimension, Soho VFX; special effects supervisor, Stefano Pepin; stunt coordinator, Mark Mottram; assistant director, Ben Howarth; second unit directors, John DeLuca, Thomas Napper; second unit camera, Alan Stewart; casting, Francine Maisler.

With

Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Simon Ruddell Beale, Joanna Riding, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, Annette Crosbie, Chris Pine, Richard Glover, Frances de la Tour.

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  1. Higgs Boson says:

    Just caught up with this at a FREE library screening. Was never so bored in my life! I asked for my money back.

  2. Sherry says:

    Did no one notice that the “cow” is a BULL? The only time you see the utters is in a close up. But unless I and my whole family saw wrong that white “cow” was a BULL in every other scene when you see the whole animal.

  3. Richard Malzahn says:

    I am not going to critique this film because I think Mr. Foundas has already done that in his own way. I am, though, going to critique the critique, but only on a single point. Critiques are really nothing more than (hopefully) informed opinions. Maybe Mr. Foundas has no children, thus his use of the completely incorrect term “family appeal” used in the first paragraph. Because I knew nothing about the production prior to taking my 8 year old to see the film, I relied on reviews. This turned out to my mistake. From the pedophile wolf (played by Johnny Depp) to Jack’s harsh and abusive mother to the blissfully unfaithful newlyweds, this movie seems to glorify the dark sides of our relationships, leaving unwitting parents left to sort out the inevitable and uncomfortable questions while leaving the theater. Not unlike Rango, I thought the film was completely inappropriate for a PG rating and would recommend against it to parents of younger children. I’m not sure why Disney has decided to market this as a family film, but based on other parental reviews I’ve seen I’m not the only one who feels this way.

    I made a mistake taking my kid to see this and I’ll be more careful next time.

  4. Heinz Otto says:

    Worst movie I´ve ever seen.

  5. Susu.ro says:

    I avoided reading any reviews before seeing this film, so I’d have no expectations or prejudices. And in the opening moments, I thought I’d been rewarded. This was clearly nothing typical from Hollywood. The characters in period dress, singing their dialog, and the surprise of seeing Tracey Uhlman! I was delighted to see her attached to this project. It bode well! The camera focused on the actors, and not the CGI. Since I knew nothing of the story, I wondered if it would be another LES MISERABLES. But as it unfolded, the “sing-song” lyrics that I hoped would evolve into grand musical numbers got a bit tiresome, and a slow leak began to hiss from my enthusiasm. It needed more…something. OK, so we’ve been introduced to childhood fairy tale themes, and maybe they’re going to weave them together somehow. Well they attempted to, but not in an imaginative way. Merle Streep as the witch. I thought there might have been a dash of Margaret Hamilton in her initial appearance, but no…Streep was taking it elsewhere. The first glimmer of genuine music came with Johnny Depp as The Big Bad Wolf. Cheesy makeup, but I can overlook that, the scene still works. I thought Chris Pine as the Prince was the stand-out performance. My guess is that this characterization is what the screenwriters had in mind for the entire project…funny, hammy, over the top, but enjoyable. And consistent. But the other characters, with their occasional surprisingly bad dialog, never attained it. Streep’s performance became irritating. The other characters bounced between light comedy and out-of-place drama. I gave up any hope of this being an actual musical, and over half-way through, the sing-songy dialog ceased all together, for no apparent reason. It was like the assistant director took over while the big guy went to lunch. Eventually, we the audience stumbled out of a forest of confusion, and see what looks like the end of the story. I resisted looking at my watch the whole time, and thought, well that wasn’t bad, but…wrong. The story plunged back into an irritating forest of heavy-handed seriousness, with thorns of what again attempted to be musical dialog. I had had enough. This could have been spin on the PRINCESS BRIDE, but it got LOST (somewhere) IN TRANSLATION. On the plus side, I was impressed that this thing got the green light from an industry that loves formulaic stories that at least promise to get production costs back. I hope they will with this one. Thirty minutes too long, and btw…Stephen Sondheim? Really?

  6. Morag Hagan says:

    I wandered into cinema on a ‘post hurricane ‘ Scottish afternoon with no notion of what was to come.
    well, I was very pleasantly surprised by the fact it was a musical!!!
    great cast, full of fun and wonderment
    what a lovely way to spend a dreich Friday

  7. Emery says:

    The Producer’s Notebook:
    Wondered for months why trailers for a musical included no music…Except for Blunt the casting so far off-base wondered if cast put together during drunken late-night poker game with actors being used instead of poker chips…Kid actors? LRRHood expressiveness coulda been replaced by a potato with 2 eyes. Boy? Charisma/looks of an “Oliver!” background imp from 1968. That hat! And for Sondheim story on kids – (“Children will listen…”) you gotta have kids with chops. Not gonna go into Depp who is shoe-horned into “Woods” about as smoothly as Damon was in “Interstellar.”

    Then there’s Streep…mistakenly thought she was auditioning for that Off-Broadway Imelda Marcos musical. (Merly – get those upper teeth adjusted – we who are close to the details notice – and those problematic esses were noticeable.)

    Costumes ill-advised. Ragbin throw-off plus prom dress rejects. Production design all shadows and fog. (Woody already did that film.)

    The egghead’s critique: Sondheim/Lapine’s production was self-aware presentation to theatregoers – asides to audience from narrator, etc. Marshall forgoes breaking the third wall. Understandable. It’s Disney. But Marshall kills off “Woods” as sure as they kill the giants. Throughout the libretto and lyrics are the stringent lines tossed off by characters reflecting the irony or ridiculousness of their choices or situations. Often they are some of the strongest jokes. And in every case Marshall had them shot and delivered as if they were inconsequential bon mots. (Another “Interstellar” analogy: Like having McConaughey mumblecore his way through an explanation of why they were going into space.) Without this underlying perspective of astringency and self-knowledge we’re left with the action on the surface.

    “Into The Woods” timeless beauty is its knowing blend of loss, melancholy, hope and joy.

    The Producer’s Score: Hit 56% of film’s full potential.

  8. Michael Zand says:

    Scott Foundas’ review seem more intent on showing us how smart and erudite he is rather than reviewing this film. He says Marshall hasn’t made a “great” film but an okay one. I wonder A: What Scott Founds version of a “great” Into the Woods would be and B: Has Scott Foundas ever directed or created anything that might be considered great? I’m guessing no.

  9. Maureen says:

    This movie was terrible. It pulls a full vacuum. I have enjoyed visits to the move. When my iguana nearly bit my thumb off, I had more enjoyment than this movie. I cannot remember when I have seen a worse movie. I wish I could unsee it.

  10. Lexy says:

    All of you guys need to calm down. It’s a musical. Of course there’s going to be constant singing. From this review I’m not sure if you thought it was good or it was bad but it was a horrible stage to movie adaptation. Way too many songs/scenes were cut out of it. The actors in this movie did an amazing job and I loved their performances but as a whole, the stage production is much better. Everything was much more slowed down and it made a lot more sense. They cut too much out so everything was sped up and didn’t really make sense how they got from one place to the other. I’ve loved this play since I was 3 years old. I don’t understand why you all are hating on it and calling it “torture to watch” because it really wasn’t. It seems like you guys only hate it because it was a musical. I personally loved Chicago and there wasn’t anything wrong with the editing or how it was put together. I honestly think it was better put together than this movie. This play is very complicated and has a lot going on and by cutting so much of it out, they just made it more and more confusing. Yes, this is a dark musical but it’s about fairy tales, it’s fictional. It shouldn’t be taken so seriously. Grimm fairy tales are dark and previous disney movies made them happier and not so dark but Grimm fairy tales was the original version that was marketed to kids. In other countries they market dark things to their children to scare them into being careful about the world. Literally so many dark things are happening in this world and are plastered in the media and you think that this play is “too dark”? This world is disturbing and dark and children need to learn to be careful. Wouldn’t you want your child to know about the dangers of this world so they don’t go in blindly and get caught in them?

  11. louis says:

    You are clearly a stupid little bitch who knows nothing about film…where do you get off saying this snarky shit about this director when you have made nothing? Can you name a better musical film of the last 20 years than this guy has made? You are pathetic while being inarticulate…..as Spencer Tracey says in Bad Day At Black Rock: ” you’re wrong at the top of your voice”…shame on you…go back to school and learn to watch and write about movies …..

  12. Nan Carrington says:

    Dark and disturbing. I think there were 5 deaths in all, infidelity, body mutilation, physical assault, 3 children lost their mothers. This level of trauma is not put into the movie by sheer coincidence. There is a great deal of trauma and it was marketed to children. People need to wake up and understand the basics of Neurolinguistic programming and how it is affecting our children and our societies. This film is dark and extremely disturbing. Not to mention the music was pure torture to listen to. I will not be attending any more Disney Films. They have no moral grounding as far as I’m concerned and I seriously question their intentions in regards to their young audience.

    • Maureen says:

      You must be a democrat. No one else would be so rude to another poster except a complete idiot such as yourself. The movie was pitiful, and you are even more so.

    • Carol Mars says:

      This Sondheim musical was based on Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Those were some pretty scary tales meant to warn and educate children and their parents about the evils of the world. Be cautious…that’s the whole point of the fairy tales.

  13. Catherine Pierce says:

    I’m a lover of musicals and I loved this one. Even if I do have the phrase “Into the woods, into the woods…” running through my head all day, I don’t care, still loved it!

  14. Chris Rosa says:

    “Into the Woods” the movie is one of the most epic musical blunders in cinematic history. It was torture to watch and a waste of time. I’m disgusted with these sycophants not telling the truth about this awful movie. It’s a facade that looks so pretty, big studio, big names, big money, based on successful Broadway play, and they still couldn’t create anything watchable. Rob Marshall got nothing right. 1/3 of the theater walked walked out before it ended, that’s a fact.

    If you want to waste your precious time and money then this is the movie for you!

  15. snyc says:

    I’m not sure if I saw the same movie as the others who posted comment. I saw a magical movie, superbly acted and very well sung. I’d seen the play in New York years ago with Bernadette Peters,and I absolutely loved this movie. I saw it with some very seasoned theater and movie people, none of whom are in the entertainent business, all of whom see lots and lots of movies and theater..and we ALL loved it.

  16. Madalyn says:

    This movie was so bad…It was painful to sit through it.

  17. Marco says:

    Walked out after 20 min. Epically boring and tangential music. Boring lyrics. Great cast. All five of us agreed we prefer home than sitting through this hell.

    • Manuel says:

      Boring lyrics? What’s your idea of great, interesting lyrics? Oh, I know…”it’s all about dat bass…”

      You’re clearly a 2 dimensional moron.

  18. David says:

    Just walked out of the 7pm xmas eve showing. Never have walked out of a movie before. lasted 45 minutes and that was to long.

  19. loco73 says:

    No thank you… will stay away from another Disney souless montrosity. Disney has surely learned a very important lesson…how to destroy movies. “Prince Of Persia”, “John Carter” and “The Lone Ranger” are just some of the colosal failures that one would think would make them stop…but no, not Disney. And if they cannot get their hands on something, they destroy it by proxy, purchased Pixar and sucked the life out of the company, purchased Marvel, and despite the initial and current box office success, those meandering “super-hero” movies have all become budget bloated one-note CGi and special effects ladden vomit fests. If one or more fail at the box office the current love affair between Disney and Marvel will end rather quickly…

    And now, in a bid to completely traumatize all fandoms, they have picked Star Wars fans…as Darth Disney managed to push an irrelevant and bloated Lucas to sell his entire Empire to them.. choosing Jar Jar Abrams to head a new nauseating attempt to suck the last embers of life left in the “Star Wars” franchise and see if they could squeeze a few more dollars in order to cover all their other costly mistakes..

    I wonder if a year from now, after people will have their hearts ripped out and crapped upon by Jar Jar Abrams’s fetid take on “Star Wars”, complete with lensflares and lack of anything approaching substance, enraged “Star Wars” fans will mount a full frontal assault on Darth Disney, one that would make the Rebel Alliance proud, and finally pulverise out of existence a company started by well known anti-Semite and all around biggot, Walt Disney…hmmm we shall see!

    Basically what I am saying…yeah…I don’t think I will be going to see “Into The Woods”…

    Still after that entire rant, I will give Darth Disney one consolation marker, at least they are not Sony…

    • Alice M says:

      Oh give it a rest. People like you are who ruin fandoms, not movie studios. Film audiences change. Different mediums require different considerations.

      It’s the same as Star Trek fans complaining about Abram’s Star Trek. I have watched Star Trek my entire life and the movie reboot is just fine. It’s not the same, no, but it’s not intended to be. It’s geared towards a new crowd of movie goers. It is under new direction and vision. There are new techniques available to be used (and sometimes abused). You can’t expect movies to be the same as 20 years ago! That’s insane. It’s the same thing as complaining how there’s no AC/DC on the radio anymore.

      Stop going into movies with some builtup preconception of exactly how you want the movie to be. Stop looking to be insulted. Don’t be the movie hipster who hates big cinema because capitalism sucks and movie crowds are just so low-bar.

      In short, build a bridge and get over it.

    • Paul says:

      Jeez, lighten up man. You must be the loanly guy at the bar all alone.

  20. Alan says:

    At the link, there is note on the LACK of influence that Bettelheim’s book had on the piece. Obviously, it can be argued that his work still did have some unconscious influence on the piece, but Sondheim has never read Bettelheim, and Lapine seems to have tried to consciously avoid letting any influence from Bettelheim find its way into the work.

    http://www.ovrtur.com/show/119941/trivia

  21. Gabe says:

    well it sure looks good

  22. jhs39 says:

    I don’t agree with the standby critical position that Rob Marshall over-edits his musical numbers in Chicago and Nine because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. If you watch the 1999 TV movie version of Annie which Rob Marshall choreographed and directed there is no over-editing at all and you are allowed to enjoy the choreography and dancing. But since Annie was a TV movie Marshall was allowed to use an entire cast with musical theater experience and talent. With Chicago and Nine he was stuck with a bunch of movie stars who frequently couldn’t dance and could barely sing so he had little choice but to rapid edit the musical numbers rather than show how terrible the actual movie star dancing was. Into the Woods seems to have been much better cast than Chicago or Nine so, surprise, all of a sudden Rob Marshall isn’t over-editing and allows the viewer to see the choreography again.

  23. LOL says:

    This film looks so crap. James Corden sucks.

  24. Stuart Yael Gordon says:

    A better review than I expected. I’ll be outside the movie theater at midnight on Christmas Day, cosplayed as Jack’s cow, waiting in line in anticipation. What? Oh.

    • Jay says:

      It was a better review than the movie deserved. The movie was painful. I wished for a “Godzilla meets Bambi” ending after the first 17 acts so that they would stop singing. The movie should come with a warning that it may cause PTSD.

  25. Trip says:

    Streep was terrible. everyone else was fantastic

    • Dennis J says:

      Trip was probably on a trip when he saw it. Streep was wonderful. Perfect.

      • Manuel says:

        Hey Andrew Wallace Miller, it’s a freaking MUSICAL… You know, music, singing… Why so many morons posting here?

      • Andrew Wallace Miller says:

        I did not like the movie. Some scenes looked great, but I do not really like a movies where almost every word is sung an I am a musician myself. I rate this movie a zero. Sorry, just being honest.

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