Over the break, I went to see a film that had been a point of frustration for me since the first trailer was released. As a fan of Sondheim and self-proclaimed musical theater geek, I bristled at the idea of watching a Disney-produced version of one of my favorite anti-Disney musicals, “Into the Woods.” However, I’m also a Disney fan and shamelessly love Anna Kendrick, so I fought back my misgivings and went into the movie theater with dreading hopefulness. To put it simply, I was not at all impressed.
I would take my review with a grain of salt, however, as I am a person who enjoys seeing theater for its purpose as a form of social and political commentary in addition to its ability to entertain and amuse. If you are a theater person who mainly enjoys the actual theater (i.e. singing and dancing) or merely think the trailer was interesting, then you will not be disappointed by this movie.
Kendrick and Emily Blunt absolutely dazzle in their performances as Cinderella and the baker’s wife, respectively. However, none of the other celebrities really caught my attention. Meryl Streep’s portrayal of the witch was unfortunately stripped of all of its emotional power by Disney’s unfortunate cuts, James Corden was endearingly goofy as the baker, but did not leave a lasting impression, and Johnny Depp felt out of place, seemingly stuck in one of Tim Burton’s films.
Another problem I had with the movie was that the actors who played Little Red Riding Hood and Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk” were too young. A big part of the musical is the sexual exploration of Jack and Red Riding Hood as they approach young adulthood. The two teenagers have their first sexual experiences, Red with the wolf and Jack with the female giant. Both experiences are bittersweet, because they have learned and grown from them, but they also miss the blissful ignorance of childhood. Casting these two characters as young kids that look about 10 or 11 loses that meaning, and the theme of learning “things … that you never knew before” that change your life both for the better, and the worse, gets destroyed in the process.
The lack of the reprise of “Agony” and the death of Rapunzel was also a huge disappointment. “Agony” was performed well by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as brothers who fight each other for who feels more agony in the face of an unattainable woman. The true power of this song however comes through in its reprise, when the young princes meet again after having married Rapunzel and Cinderella, and admit that they have found new unattainable women to pine for—Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. This reprise shows the underlying failure of the “Prince Charming” model of “true love.” These young princes love their princesses because they are out of reach—stuck in eternal sleep, in artificial death, in a tower or always fleeing—not for their actual personalities or intelligence. Ultimately, these young men would not be happy with the young women they have “won” because they have been taught to value the chase and not the actual person. In the end, Cinderella’s prince cheats on her with the baker’s wife, which Disney does show in the movie, and Rapunzel’s prince abandons her to die at the hands of the giant.
The death of Rapunzel brings up another important point about the witch. In Sondheim’s version, the witch dwells in a world of gray, not black and white, and her role is not clearly the villain. In Disney’s version, the witch is vain and hateful and wants to keep her daughter from a man who clearly loves her and wants to protect her. During her final scene, she sings “The Last Midnight” and it sounds like the angry villain blaming the good people for her failure. However, in Sondheim’s version, her last songs “Lament” and “Midnight” are the final musings of a woman deemed evil whose actions are really no worse than the “good” townspeople. Streep would have nailed the original character of the witch, bringing the power and emotion of a character misunderstood throughout time with her skills. Disney stripped this opportunity from her and she remains a whiny, evil, typical villain who dies like all villains at the end of the movie.
The real tragedy of this movie however, is how it was stripped of its message by Disney’s cuts, which bordered on censoring. The basic idea behind “Into the Woods” is that the main characters all wish for better lives, but once they have these so-called “happy endings,” they realize that they still want more. Sondheim achieves this by ending the first act with all of the characters’ happy endings. Then, during the first song of the second act the audience learns that the baker and his wife, Cinderella and Jack and his mother have been living their happy endings for a few months. They begin a sort of reprise of the first song, “I Wish,” illuminating that none of the characters are entirely satisfied with their original wishes. Although they have all achieved their “happy ending,” none of them are actually happy. However, none of this occurs in the film version, and the intermission and reprise are skipped, going immediately to the entrance of the angry female giant coming back to avenge the death of her husband. The idea of a happy ending is the lifeblood of Disney, so the fact that this movie coincidentally loses this theme in its cuts is a little suspicious. In the film version, the entrance of the female giant seems to destroy everyone’s happy endings, which in Sondheim’s version never existed, because his characters were never satisfied with their lives.
Another related point that angered all Sondheim fans is that Disney cut out the role of the baker’s father as the narrator. The narrator provided a lens for the audience to see the musical the way Sondheim intended, and removing this character from the film left the audience stranded. The narrator criticizes the characters and interjects his own opinions toward the end, changing the structure of the fairy tale into a moldable object that can be interpreted and changed by the audience, as Sondheim intended. His song with his son, the baker, is also cut, in which he explains that the father always has the role of abandoning his children or dying or messing everything up in a fairy tale, but that the baker doesn’t have to follow that path. This prompts the baker to change the shape of the story, and teaches the audience that we can do the same. Fairy tales and every other type of information or story or film that comes our way does not have to be passively received, it can be challenged and changed and interpreted. That Disney loses this lesson in crafting a film version of the musical is a tragedy but not unexpected. As children, we were fed Disney versions of everything, meant to be taken at face value and left that way, and it is ironic and sad that Disney was able to turn “Into the Woods” into the same thing that it tries to warn against.
Other problems arise in this film version of Sondheim’s famous musical, but these few are what ultimately destroy the powerful message Sondheim and Lapine laboriously infused in “Into the Woods.” If you loved the stage version of this play, do not see the film version, you will be disappointed. Otherwise, go to enjoy the beautiful score and excellent acting abilities of Kendrick in this watered-down, Disney-fied version of a musical classic.