Movie Review: INTO THE WOODS

The film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods (out December 25) is an example of how star power can be effective in drawing people to the cinema. I really wanted to see this movie because of the incredible cast, but I don’t normally like musicals and fell asleep when I saw the stage version many years ago, so take this review for whatever it’s worth.

The story is an intertwinement of the Grimm fairy tales about Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and his beanstalk. There’s a wolf and a witch and a prince—two of them, in fact.

into the woods streepTying them all together are a baker and his wife, who must reverse a curse that prevents them from having chilren. The witch makes them go into the woods to procure four items that would help her lift the curse. Lots of singing ensues.

As expected, Meryl Streep is well cast as the witch, bringing humor and a hint of humanity to the role. Johnny Depp’s wolf is appropriately lecherous and predatory and, yes, funny. Anyone who has seen Streep’s and Depp’s turns in Mamma Mia! and Sweeney Todd, respectively, know they can carry a tune.

The revelation is Emily Blunt, who follows her impressive turn as the badass heroine of this summer’s Edge of Tomorrow with another performance unlike anything we’ve seen her do. Her baker’s wife is the most riveting character, sensual without effort, and her singing voice is clear and pure.

into-the-woods pineMore problematic was Chris Pine’s performance as Cinderella’s prince. When he started his first number, “Agony,” I was mortified because he was so cheesy and melodramatic. I thought, “Why didn’t [director] Rob Marshall tell him to tone it down?!” Halfway through the number, I realized Pine was intentionally lampooning the concept of Prince Charming.

Once I understood that, Pine’s performance became very funny, but the issue remains that his scenes are tonally incongruous with the rest of the movie. The other actors play it straight and earnest, including Anna Kendrick as Cinderella talking to birds. It can be argued that Streep’s and Depp’s performances are over the top, too, but witches and wolves are hardly subtle creatures and these two are simply in character. Pine’s portrayal is a parody, something you’d expect to see on Saturday Night Live.

A friend who also saw Woods this weekend told me afterward that the princes are written and played that way in the stage version, too (I don’t remember; I saw it a long time ago and, as mentioned, I fell asleep). She thought Pine was spot on. My friend continued to say, however, that the original production contained more comedy than the movie, so perhaps I wouldn’t have found the princes’ goofy scenes so jarring in tone if the movie were funnier overall.

It is mostly faithful to its roots, for better or worse. It’s too long; whole numbers and scenes could’ve been cut without the storyline being affected. Several threads are introduced and then left dangling. But the movie has its moments, and some of the performances might be worth a trip into the theater.

Nerd verdict: Uneven but diverting trek Into the Woods

Photos: Walt Disney Studios



  • Reply
    jenn aka the picky girl
    December 1, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Yea! You saw it! I’m not a huge musical fan, but I love Into the Woods. My brother introduced me to it many years ago with the stage version. Then a good friend was in a local production of it several years back.

    I’ve been so excited to see this.

    Your friend is right. The princes are intentionally hokey. But the comedy only lasts until the second act. Then things take that much darker turn, and though it’s depressing, I love what it says about fairy tales and life in general. Can’t wait to see this.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2014 at 12:34 pm

      Yes, the second act gets much darker. My friend loved the stage version and she really liked the movie, too, so I think that’s a good sign for you!

  • Reply
    December 1, 2014 at 9:57 am

    I grew up adoring musicals, particularly West Side Story, Calamity Jane and Camelot. I would beg for the soundtrack albums for Christmas and play them over and over to learn the songs. This is a movie I could love. I admire your disclosure! Thanks for a terrific review.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2014 at 12:36 pm

      You said you adored musicals growing up—do you still like them? I did like WEST SIDE STORY when I saw it as a kid.

  • Reply
    December 1, 2014 at 10:33 am

    I’m usually on the fence when it comes to musicals. Some work and some don’t. Like you, I will probably show up for the cast. I saw a touring production in Los Angeles years ago and had the same trouble with the plot. I also felt the 2nd act feels added on at the last minute, but the first act alone doesn’t have much of a message.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2014 at 12:44 pm

      I also saw that L.A. production, with Vanessa Williams as the witch, right? I think both the stage and movie versions could’ve ended sooner because the messages didn’t need to be repeated and hammered home.

  • Reply
    December 1, 2014 at 10:35 am

    I like musicals (Hello, Oklahoma! *jazz hands*), but had no inclination to see this. Not a huge fan of the fairy tale, I guess. Some of the actors and performances you mentioned give me a little tug towards seeing it, but ultimately don’t think this one’s in my wheelhouse. Great review, though. Even with your issues, you almost got my butt in the seat, which is saying something. 🙂

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      My goal is always to get your butt in the seat. Next time.

  • Reply
    Naomi Johnson
    December 1, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    I’m going to pass on Into the Woods. I enjoy Sondheim’s music (a LOT), but other than his lyrics in West Side Story, I’ve never felt his stage productions have translated well to the screen. Didn’t like the film versions of Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, or Gypsy. I liked A Funny Thing HOTWTTF when I was a kid, but find it hard to sit through now. When I want Sondheim, I dial him up on the iPod.

  • Reply
    December 13, 2014 at 11:44 am

    There is nothing worse than people who nothing of a particular medium of art trying to write a critique of it. Into the woods is a brilliant musical that takes familiar fairy tales and explores the psychological and sociological currents which are at their heart. Far too many people who critique the film industry have only a superficial understanding of script writing, and are incappable of bringing themselves to something that is deeper and actually provokes thought and contemplation. They are so used to the obvious being pre-digested and placed in their lap, that they are unable to actually analize an intelligent script. It’s like trying to feed a five course meal from a three Michelin star restaurant to a person who only eats fast food. They just don’t get it, and are unable to appreciate it.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      December 15, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      While I don’t know much about musicals, which I made clear in the first paragraph, I worked in production at Disney Studios for five years, during which time I read and covered many scripts. If anything, I tend to be overly critical of movies because I know too much about what a good script should be, not because I “know nothing.”

    • Reply
      December 21, 2014 at 10:44 pm

      I have a strong theater background and have been exposed to a number of musicals, Gus, but I have never heard of anyone calling Into the Woods a brilliant musical. I agree that the 1st act is really fun and unconventional, but the 2nd has problems and a lot of theaters even cut the Prince/Rapunzel story line. Until you have seen the movie version, I suggest you give way to the opinion of someone who has.

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