Disney and Rob Marshall present a fun, but neutered version of Sondheim’s beloved musical. In shaving off the more adult moments that define the stage version of Into the Woods, the film adaptation all but depletes it’s potential gravitas. However, there’s still quite a bit of fun to be had.
From the moment that Disney announced their plans to produce a film adaptation of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Classic 1987 Broadway hit, skepticism has run rampant. Concerns and distrust in Disney’s willingness to stay true to the source material and deliver upon the original musical’s dark, adult themes concerning infidelity, sexual abuse and death. Lots and lots of death. None of which has ever been seriously dealt with in a Disney film before (besides death, which the Pirates of the Caribbean films practically bathed in).
As it turns out, the concern was entirely merited. And while the final product is by no means a catastrophe (it’s a solid film on its own merit), it will most likely disappoint long-term fans of the original.
In adaptations, cutting and rearranging a story is often necessary. Taking away from or adding to a narrative can be a critical component during a switch between storytelling mediums. The question should never be “did they change something?”, but rather “why did they change something?” Do those changes help the story or hurt it? Did the adapter understand the point the original material was intending to make? Did it stay true to the source in spirit? Any adaptation of Into the Woods would’ve had to some fixing, to be sure. Unfortunately, Disney’s take on the material featured many an adjustment made for no reason other than keeping the film marketable to their usual audience, which essentially involves liberally cutting most of the adult-focused message Lapine’s original book banked heavily on in the critical second act.
Placing the original show aside for a moment, Into the Woods isn’t actually a bad film. It’s lively and humorous, featuring an impressive ensemble and some stunning fantasy set design. As am addition to Disney’s library of cinematic fairy tales, it more than does its job. Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Chris Pine particularly shine amongst the lengthy cast list, with Pine stealing every scene he’s in as a pompous, dashing and irredeemably shallow prince. The vocal performances are amongst the most impressive the cinema has seen in recent years. Marshall’s knack for presenting tonally loyal stage adaptations is at its finest here, his directorial style closely mimicking the pacing and sensibilities of a stage show (for the first two acts, at least). The problems with Into the Woods almost universally revolve around the behind-the-scenes conflict between its diametrically opposed obligations to Disney’s marketing team and Sondheim and Lapine’s original work.
The issue isn’t so much that the film cut elements of the original show (although that is a large problem that is very present), it’s that when the film can’t successfully do away with the more abrasive moments, it opts to clumsily flinch instead. Cowardly pan-aways plague the more violent scenes in the film, to an extremity that go much further than it’s PG rating would demand. All overt sexual displays have been lifted from the script, completely rewriting the tone of multiple scenes, fundamentally altering their subtext. Most unfortunate of all is the removal of the opening of the second act, which sets the entire tone for the remainder of the show. The reason for the cutting very well may have been timing as opposed to sanitation, but it proves to be a critical mistake regardless, upending almost every character’s story arc.
The story that follows more or less stays in line with the original version, but the removal of the emotional arcs that instigate it make the scenes therein feel rather alien to their stage counterparts. The concepts of dissatisfaction, loneliness, and a general sense of depression that colored the second act of the show are gone, rendering the second half a tonal replicant of the first, if only a shade or two darker.
On its own merit, Into the Woods will prove a good time for families looking for post-The Hobbit fare this winter movie season. But fans of the material looking for a definitive screen adaptation will be left rather disappointed by Disney’s take. It may just take a few rewatches to adjust to and accept this new sanitized Into the Woods, but as it currently stands, it would’ve been nice to see a screen version that makes good on all the wonderful potential the source material provides. At the end of the day, however, a film can only really be judged by what it is, rather than what it should have been. And as the family-friendly fairy tale romp Disney’s marketing department promised, it more than works.