Whenever Disney dabbles into fairy tales, especially darker ones, there’s an inherent perception that studio executives will dampen down the story and ‘Disney-fy’ it, making it more accessible for families and taking the darker tone out of it. With Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, there was fear that the studio would subdue the darker third act elements, some of them downright violent, but Disney, thankfully, has let director Rob Marshall tell the story as it was meant to be told.
Into the Woods tells the story of a Witch (Meryl Streep) who places a curse on the house of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). To remove the curse, the couple must retrieve several objects from other fairy tale creatures such as Little Red Riding Hood (Lila Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). As the tale unfolds, an escalating series of events and romances converge to bring about a dramatic finale.
Sondheim being Sondheim, the music keeps the film moving even as it struggles at times to maintain its footing with so many storylines and characters. Prince Charming played by Chris Pine, by far one of the most entertaining characters, is given far too little screentime while Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) is given far too much. Some of the CGI effects also come off as rather pedestrian and the direction at times lack focus. And while Disney should be applauded for keeping the darker tone and message of the original production, some of the intense moments are either only winked at or glossed over instead of emphasized for true dramatic effect. The strength of the characters however makes up for the film’s shortcomings.
All of the cast excels, Meryl Streep of course stealing the show, but Emily Blunt and James Corden, as the heart of the story, really help ground an emotional stake for the viewer. Even as some musical numbers fall flat for not being cinematic enough or unnecessary and some characters do not hit the mark (Johnny Depp as the Wolf in a rather hideous costume), the journey of the Baker and his Wife keeps the audience engaged in the story. The story is not a children’s tale where things end happily ever after, but a reflection on how those types of stories help us deal with the cruel world around us. That message comes across strong, and the resulting film is enjoyable and thought-provoking.