The clever thing about Into the Woods, and this is true of both Stephen Sondheim’s original musical play and Rob Marshall’s new film adaptation, is that it uses fairy tale archetypes to exemplify a fundamental truth we all know, namely that life is not a fairy tale. People – and giants and witches and big bad wolves, for that matter – cannot be separated into the extremes of good or evil, nor can problems be solved simply by wish-making. This isn’t to suggest that wishes don’t come true, but rather that they sometimes do, and this definitely relates to the age-old adage, “Be careful what you wish for,” which doubles as the film’s tagline.
Most importantly, although resolving bad situations is indeed possible, the notion of “happily ever after” is exposed as an unrealistic simplification. That’s the moral of the story, you might say, which is only fitting since one of the intended purposes of a fairy tale is to instill moralistic values.
Of course, the other intended purpose is to entertain, enchant, thrill, and delight. Into the Woods does all of the above while remaining surprisingly faithful – though, it must be stated for less open-minded audiences, not identical – to the musical play. Sondheim’s songs, while more conversational than melodic and perhaps a touch too prestissimo for every lyric to be heard, successfully propel James Lapine’s screenplay, which, like his original stage script, shifts from fun and lighthearted to contemplative and serious about halfway through. Praise must also be given to Marshall and his creative team for giving the film tremendous visual flair. These would include costume designer Colleen Atwood, production designer Dennis Gassner, cinematographer Dion Beebe, and the visual effects artists too numerous to name in this review.
The opening song introduces us to several established and non-established fairy tale characters, many of whom, as per narrative tradition, wish for something. We have Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes to escape the mistreatment of her stepmother (Christine Baranski) and stepsisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) by attending the King’s festival and dancing with the Prince. We have a boy named Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who wishes that his only friend, a cow dubbed Milky White, would finally produce some milk and not have to be sold at market. We have Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman), a stern, sensible woman who offhandedly wishes for a lot of things, but mostly that her son wasn’t such a fool. We have Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who doesn’t wish for much, except for a basket full of breads and sweets for her granny – even though she really wants them for herself. And then we have the catalysts of the plot, the Baker (James Corden) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt), who wish to have a child.
Ending their childlessness depends upon lifting a curse placed on the Baker’s family by a spiteful witch (Meryl Streep) years earlier. For the curse to be lifted, the Baker and his wife are tasked with finding four very specific items before the moon turns blue in three day’s time. I won’t say what the items are, regardless of your familiarity with the stage musical. I will say that the search for them will force the lead characters into crossing paths, irrevocably linking their fates. I will also say that their fates are in no way indicative of what traditionally happens in fairy tales, even though they do initially obtain what they desire – or, to be more precise, what they think they desire. The characters, initially painted in broad strokes, are gradually revealed to be far more complicated.
Cinderella, for example, seemed so sure of what she wanted at the beginning of the film. But it will eventually become abundantly clear that she has absolutely no idea what she wants. The Baker’s wish to become a father is eventually muddled by deep, crippling insecurities, his lack of a father figure forcing him to question whether or not he can effectively parent. The Witch might initially seem like the film’s designated villain, but as it progresses, it becomes apparent that she’s grappling with her own fears and insecurities, specifically in relation to another well-known fairy tale character, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy). And then there’s Prince Charming (Chris Pine), the supposed object of Cinderella’s affection; in this case, his chivalrous one-dimensionality indicates not a lack of imagination, but rather a keen awareness of shallow character. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” he says tellingly.
Further challenges to the traditional simplicity of fairy tales are presented with introduction of a giant (a digitally enlarged Francis de la Tour) and the ensuing depiction of the death and destruction she causes. What, for example, are the moral implications of slaying such a creature when it’s clear she has genuine cause to be angry? Is anyone truly at fault for bringing her down from the clouds, or is it simply a matter of the need to assign blame in a time of conflict and tragedy? That Into the Woods doesn’t shy away from the tragic or even the gory, as when Cinderella’s stepsisters mutilate their feet to better fit into her glass slipper, is a reassuring reminder that not all family films should be sanitized for broader appeal. Here is a smart, progressive film in which archetypes and showtunes are used to convey contemporary ideas.