Review: 'Into the Woods' finds harmony on film

Anna Kendrick delivers a sweet Cinderella, stretching from her pop tart turn in Pitch Perfect.
Anna Kendrick delivers a sweet Cinderella, stretching from her pop tart turn in Pitch Perfect.
Published Dec. 22, 2014

What fans of Into the Woods have long wished for, more than life, more than anything, more than the moon, is a movie version of the sardonic fractured fairy tale.

If that line meant nothing to you, you're probably not fan enough to recognize it as a lyric. That could spell a problem for folks going sight unseen into the film rebirth of this odd and at times slow 1986 musical.

But for fans of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's stage show, Rob Marshall's film for Walt Disney Pictures may work better in ways than some live productions. Lapine adapted the script for film, and while there are some subtle changes, they shouldn't send Into the Woods devotees into a rage as once predicted.

Now for a bias alert: Into the Woods is my favorite musical of all time. From the opening note, I was like a golden retriever standing in front of a bowl of bacon. But it also meant I was on the lookout for details.

The story is based on twisted Grimm fairy tales, following characters with interlocking lives. There's a childless baker and his wife. There's Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and his mother and his milk-shy cow, Milky White. There's Cinderella and Rapunzel and two studly princes. And there's a witch, played marvelously by an utterly ugly and then lusciously gorgeous Meryl Streep.

The baker and his wife want a child more than anything, but the witch has cursed their family. In order to reverse the curse, she requires four objects — the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn and the slipper as pure as gold. They set off into the woods to get what they need.

It's not an action-packed thrill ride, but rather a fantasy filled with nuance and challenging, cerebral questions. Into the Woods can be hard road to follow if you're not fully engaged. On stage, it often feels long and fragmented, with an irreverent first act, and a somber, serious second.

But through subtle editing, the film manages what the Broadway musical struggles to achieve. On film, Into the Woods feels tighter, the tone more cohesive. A few songs are acceptably missing, including a dull one between the baker and a mysterious man, and others are set to instrumentation so the action can carry on.

Movie stars never sing with the panache of Broadway pros, but the acting and singing here is up to par. Emily Blunt and James Corden make for likable childless bakers, and Anna Kendrick delivers a sweet Cinderella, stretching from her pop tart turn in Pitch Perfect. Streep pares down the witch in the first part of the film, stripping away the brassiness Bernadette Peters originally gave the role. It pays off later.

Marshall exercised responsible use of Johnny Depp as the Wolf, the lecherous furbag who accosts Red Riding Hood (a dry and delightful Lilla Crawford). Depp plays it like a vaudevillian bum, interpretive yet effective. It would be tempting to get Depp-happy, to find a way for his character to re-emerge later in the story. But that's not true to the musical, and it's highly doubtful Sondheim and Lapine would ever entertain the thought.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Instead, we're briefly treated to Depp's Wolf in Hello, Little Girl, a song so layered with sexuality that talk once swirled it would be cut from Disney's production or tamped down.

Thankfully, it's still there, still squirmy and challenging as ever. Some things really shouldn't change.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.