Rated PG. Running time: 2 hour 4 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 4; Language0 ; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (0-5): 4.5
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Although those in the know say there are many changes from the original in this adaptation of the Broadway play, director Rob Marshall’s film comes as a blessing to those of us who have not seen it in New York or on the road. Stephen Sondheim’s original 1987 Broadway production of Into the Woods earned Tony Awards for Best Original Score (Stephen Sondheim) and Best Book of a Musical (James Lapine). Several songs did not make it into the film, nor did the play’s Narrator, the task of the latter taken over by the Baker. The story is a blending of classic fairy tales, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, but it does not end with the typical “and they lived happily ever after.” It is even darker than the Grimm Brother’s stories, so I would recommend that parents see it first before taking their children.
The plot focuses on a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), unable to produce children, so the story begins with the major characters—Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), the Baker, his Wife, and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) singing of their wishes, each for something very specific—respectively, to go to the Prince’s ball, to have a child, and to sell the cow at a good price. The way in which these wishes come about evolves in very unexpected ways, though for all it requires them to go “into the woods,” a place of danger-laden adventure.
The Baker and Wife go because they learn from their next-door neighbor The Witch (Meryl Streep) that their family is under a curse because the Baker’s parents stole from her beloved garden, so she demands that they bring her four things by the third midnight:
“The cow as white as milk,
The cape as red as blood,
The hair as yellow as corn,
The slipper as pure as gold”
All of these are found as the intertwining stories of the other major characters unfold: Jack’s task of selling his beloved cow so he and his impoverished mother will be able to buy food; Little Red Riding Hood, the bold girl, who takes without paying, bread and sweets from the bakery shop, supposedly to take to her granny in the woods; Rapunzel (Mackensie Mauzy), she of the long golden hair, kept isolated in a tower by the Witch who stole her when she was a baby; and Cinderella wishing to be able to follow her cruel stepsisters to the Prince’s ball. Later, after many adventures, we learn that the Witch herself needs the four items so that she can lift a curse on herself.
Their journeys are exciting, the Baker learning the life lesson that he cannot, nor should he expect to, work alone, that he and his wife, and ultimately many of the other characters, need each other. He and his Wife express this in the song “It Takes Two:”
“It takes two.
I thought one was enough,
It’s not true:
It takes two of us
You came through
When the journey was rough.
It took you.
It took two of us.”
In the Woods the characters find their wishes fulfilled, as in the scene at the castle where Cinderella is united with her Prince, the song “Ever After” begins:
“And it came to pass, all that seemed wrong
was now right, and those who deserved to
were certain to live a long and happy life.
However, this was but Act One, Act Two begins with the characters better off but still wishing for other things, and soon they are forced into the woods to hide from the vengeful wife of the giant that Jack killed when he chopped down the skyscraping vine. The princes we soon see are not the true heroes of the film, one of them even becoming an adulterer, at least in his heart. The characters must manage to come together to survive and overcome the giant’s wife. There is a tragic happening before the story ends with some life lessons learned by all, well summed up in the song that Cinderella and the Baker sing to Little Red Riding Hood and Jack , both of the latter having lost their mothers. The song ends with:
“Things will come out tight now.
We can make it so.
Someone is on your side,
No one is alone.”
The music does not contain a song that we can easily hum afterward or perhaps root for at Oscar time, but it is tuneful—and the duet sung by the two princes was both so amusing and so beautifully sung that the screening audience broke out in applause when it ended. Best of all, of course, is Meryl Streep giving her all to the part, especially when she sings. I say “her all” because she always uses her whole body to convey her meaning, not just her voice and face. I should mention also that Johnny Depp has a cameo appearance as a really creepy Wolf.
Going into the woods takes on a very interesting symbolism in the story, reminding me somewhat of Christ’s going into the wilderness following his baptism by John. Each of the fairy tale characters is seeking to full a wish. Near the end they all sing;
“Into the woods-
You have to grope,
But that’s the way
You learn to cope.
Into the woods
To find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.”
Christ too was seeking something—to comprehend his divine mission: what kind of a Messiah should he become, hence the three temptations with their economic and political implications. Like the fictional characters he learned (read “wilderness” for “woods”):
“Into the woods-
Each time you go,
There’s more to learn
Of what you know.”
Isn’t this true for you and me as well. There’s a wish and a woods for each of us. Thus, although children prepared by their parents for the dark parts probably will enjoy this film, it really is a fairy tale for adults—maybe for those who also enjoy but want a break from the Marvel Comics heroes and heroines.
All quotations are from the show’s libretto at http://theatre-musical.com/intothewoods/libretto.html
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2015 issue of Visual Parables. Go to the Store to see how you can subscribe.