Disney’s film adaptation of musical theatre Lord and Savior Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Into the Woods is pretty to look at, pleasing to listen to, and satisfying to watch. The casting is every theatre geek’s wet dream, the orchestra is chill-inducing, and the spectacular vocal quality of each actor is a relief for those still recovering from Amanda Seyfried’s performance as Cosette in Les Miserables. However, the moral complexity of this musical is lost upon those who are seeing it for the first time due to the trademarked family friendliness for which Disney is infamous. From plot changes to cut songs to softened and censored scenes, this rendition of Into the Woods is best described by the Witch: “Not good, not bad… Just nice.”
Into the Woods centers on the story of a childless Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) as they try to lift the curse placed on their home by the Witch (Meryl Streep), whose beauty (and garden) was robbed by the Baker’s father. As a result, the Witch made it impossible for the couple to have children. In order to lift this curse, they must collect the cape as red as blood, the cow as white as milk, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold, which belong to Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), respectively. From unfaithful princes to big tall terrible giants to sexually charged wolves and imprisonment in high towers, Into the Woods is ultimately a commentary upon selfishness, our inherent desire for more than what we have, and the question of satisfaction; when we obtain what we desire, are we content or has living been reduced to perpetual want?
The acting and the singing in the film is fantastic. From Corden’s rich, smooth tenor to Kendrick’s crystal clear soprano to Johnny Depp’s sultry guttural growls, Hollywood powerhouses thrive in this film in ways you both expect and are surprised by. Who knew that Chris Pine (better known as the new Captain Kirk) could hold notes with such spectacular authenticity, never losing the sickening charm and noble self-obsession that is so characteristic of Cinderella’s Prince?
The most powerful player out of all the fantastic performances is undoubtedly Meryl Streep as the Witch. I’d almost forgotten she can sing on top of everything else she’s known for (but who actually saw Mamma Mia! anyway?). Her performance as the Witch is a whirling dervish of all things hilarious, heartbreaking, passionate, and loathsome. She stays true to the moral complexity of her character, despite her original storyline being drastically changed into a more “family friendly” version of itself. Streep’s Witch is both desperate and confident, full of characteristic polarities that do not repel, but instead work together to humanize her. Her haunting performance of “Stay With Me” is both deceitful in her selfish guilt-tripping of Rapunzel, but is expertly cut with authentic vulnerability and a cruel wisdom of the world that has scorned her for so long.
With both Sondheim and original book writer James Lapine both working closely on this film (Lapine wrote the screenplay as well), the brilliant comedic timing, witty dialogue, and basic essence of the original Into the Woods remains. However, what is taken out, reworked, and censored is significant.
In the original musical, there’s a whole lot more sex and whole lot more death. In the film, key characters meet generally happier fates, and many are made to seem nicer and nobler than they should be. Deaths are less violent and less explicitly known, relying rather on vague implications. The relationship between Little Red, the symbol for virginity and purity, and the Wolf, the symbol for realistic corruption, is incredibly sexually laced in the musical, and despite how quickly the film attempts to gloss over this fact, the lyrics of “Hello Little Girl” cannot be easily ignored.
The argument can be made that graphic violence and sex don’t always make things more entertaining and that film is able to nuance these occurrences in ways theatre cannot, because the camera can capture sensitivity and the stage needs everything to be magnified. This is true in many cases, but watering down this much of such a fantastic show cannot be mistaken for the necessity of adapting to the camera; it is simply censorship for the sake of censorship, crushing the thematic value of the work for the sake of the Disney brand.
For example, Rapunzel’s storyline seems extraneous in its new adaptation. She and her Prince are given a reworked fate, and, as a result, they become anomalies in a world that is trying to make the argument that their love cannot work because it is fundamentally flawed in its superficially-based want. This version of Rapunzel is a weak character because she is not believable in her reaction to a brand new world, which destroys the main thematic argument of the story. No character is supposed to be solely good or solely bad; they are all meant to represent lust and the corrupting wish for new, beautiful, unobtainable things. That’s what makes the stage production of Into the Woods so morally rich; it allows you to see the human side of the stories that seem too one-sided to be true.
Into the Woods is a fairytale, yes, but not a Disney fairytale; it’s in direct conflict with the ideas their other films present. Violence in the film is reduced to a drop of blood and a fall that masquerades as an implication of death. Sex is kissing and cheeky duets. These are the unrealistic tropes the show worked to combat, and now, on the screen, it has embodied them. There is so much conflict that is lost here, so much character development that is flattened. The characters do not hold the same moral complexity and confusion in their decisions and actions, which diminishes the effect of the story’s focus on the dangers of wanting. Sometimes, you can’t feel it at all.
Into the Woods is a beautiful film; that is undeniable. Its special effects and settings are gorgeous. The way the filmmakers play with the concept of the woods, from sun beams peeking through gnarled trees to dust specks to water mists and beautiful silhouette shots through bushes and branches, is instrumental in bringing this stage production to a more realistic realm of fantasy. But does Disney truly bring Into the Woods to life?
Photos courtesy of Disney