On the surface, Disney’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods has all the right elements. It has a top notch cast, an experienced director, and a great staging of the film’s titular woods. When you dig into the themes of the film, however, the truth becomes apparent. Disney and Marshall have taken Sondheim’s musical of existentialist angst and thoroughly and completely neutered it.
The film boasts an impressive cast of talented actors. Meryl Streep bursts and explodes into her scenes. Her character of the Witch takes special pleasure in scaring and tormenting James Corden’s Baker as he stumbles through the woods. She propels the plot forward, constantly reminding everyone of the film’s ticking clock. Anna Kendrick ably plays the conflicted Cinderella, who dreams of attending of the King’s ball and flees at the first available opportunity. Chris Pine excels as Cinderella’s dementedly polite Prince Charming. Pine seems better suited to play characters who are slightly off than the straight leading man role of his Star Trek films. The actors mostly perform their songs well and the film’s soundtrack is an easy listen. Rob Marshall has previously directed adaptations of Chicago and Nine, giving him the experience necessary to carry off the musical’s complicated plot. In fairy tales and other literature, weird things happen in the woods. Wolves stalk little girls for lunch. Graves spawn handsome trees. Girls with impossibly long hair live in isolated towers. The film’s set designers have managed to capture this quality, successfully staging the random meetings of the film’s characters.
Sondheim’s original musical offered a mature examination into themes of wishes and loss, sexual anxiety, and the guilt of parents and survivors alike. Instead Disney has produced a film that instead winks and nods at Sondheim’s original text. Marshall and Disney present Into the Woods as a tongue and cheek deconstruction of the musical and fairy tale genre. While this deconstruction was a key part of Sondheim musical, it was a means to an end, not the end itself. To take one example, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen offer a hilariously exaggerated (complete with pelvic thrusts) performance of “Agony.” The song laments the two princes inability to attain their true loves: Cinderella and Rapunzel. The song highlights the absurdity of the fairy tale prince as a character. This, however, is all the film has to offer for their characters. In the second act of the stage show, the princes sing a reprise of “Agony.” Now the princes have gotten the women they love, but lust after two new unattainable women, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The second act of musical complicates the idea of “ever after.” It argues that maybe getting the thing you’ve wanted your entire life isn’t really what you want after all. The film completely removes this challenging and morally complicated part of the musical.
Disney has also removed the emotional complexity from the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). In the original stage version, she is a more calculating character, reminding her husband that “if the end is right it justifies the beans.” The moral ambiguity of her character builds in the second act with her sexual encounter with Prince Charming. Her song “Moments in the Woods” highlights her conflicting desires. She dreams of princes and castles, but lives with a baker and her newborn child. She ultimately decides to return to her life with the Baker only to be trampled by a giant. The film retains her awestruck attitude towards royalty, but removes her emotional conflict. This lack of conflict flattens her character and makes her death less dramatically interesting.
While this criticism may seem pedantic, it highlights the question of why make this version of Into the Woods? If in order to make a palatable family friendly version of Into the Woods requires removing its emotionally affecting content, why make it at all? Why not just select a different play? Haven’t we seen deconstructions of the fairy tale genre on the big screen already? Instead of offering the existentialist questioning of Sondheim’s original musical, Disney has served up a pretty looking, but ultimately shallow adaptation.