Into the Woods

Into the Woods photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgA humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have longed to have a child. Apparently their neighbor, an ugly old witch (Meryl Streep), placed a curse on his house when the baker’s father was caught stealing from the old hag. The witch is willing to reverse the spell. But only because she wants to be beautiful again. She cannot touch the objects she needs to accomplish this task and so she delegates securing the artifacts to the couple. The witch requires (1) a cow as white as milk, (2) a cape as red as blood, (3) hair as yellow as corn and (4) a slipper as pure as gold. Anyone familiar with fairy tales will recognize these items. Writer James Lapine has interpolated the stories of Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) & the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) in an altogether new take on traditional fables.

Playwright turned screenwriter James Lapine adapts his Tony Award–winning 1987 Broadway musical highlighting music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. For roughly 75 minutes – 60% of the film – the formula works. The script celebrates classic fairy tales from the likes of The Brothers Grimm with a captivating presentation. The production design is lavish featuring costumes and sets that compare favorably with classic movie musicals. The songs are catchy too. Certainly chief among these is the duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as whiny princes. In “Agony” they lament they cannot be with the women they desire. Pine is typecast as Cinderella’s caddish suitor and he’s enjoyable. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Who knew Pine could sing? His scene with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they splash amongst the tiny waterfalls of a brook is the musical high point in an opus that has a few. I’ll also include Anna Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Stay With Me” as well.

Into the Woods is half of a good film. The need to subvert conventional fairy tales exists during the first portion but it does so from a place that uplifts the source material. The take is ironic at times and yet the script still keeps an air of sentimentality that is enticing. Unfortunately the mindset to trash “happily ever after” actually tanks the production in the second half. There is the first artificial ending. It’s optimistic and glorious in a winking way. But then the movie continues on for another 50 minutes and the results are disastrous. As the story carries forward, the wife of the fallen giant is now angry. She terrorizes the countryside looking for the boy (Jack) responsible for the death of her husband. Everything upbeat is subsequently destroyed with little regard for the likable personalities they had originally created. A sample “modern sensibility” is when Prince Charming makes a pass at the Baker’s wife. Ew. It ultimately lumps along to a complete bummer of a conclusion that essentially undoes everything wonderful in the first section. Rarely has a movie gone so quickly from a whimsical delight to a dispirited drag. My advice? Stop watching after the mock ending.  Up until then it’s a really entertaining film.


20 Responses to “Into the Woods”

  1. Great review man! I was thinking I might enjoy this but I’ve read a few well-written reviews suggesting otherwise.


  2. Fascinating review, I had read on FB how you were lamenting this was like two different films lumped into one. I’m wondering what’s the deal with such a dramatic turn in the “second half.” I am on the fence about Into the Woods, but with these actors, this concept and you praising Pine’s ability to sing, I might just be inclined to check it out. Though I may very well take your advice and bail before things get ugly. Lol.


  3. Don Kenneth Mason Says:

    I have read many user reviews that have echoed the same sentiments as Mr. Hobin. That got me thinking:

    The original logline for the 1988 Musical was “What happens after happily ever after?”, which was a clue to all theater-goers that the psuedo-ending of the first act was not all it was cracked up to be. Hence we were expecting things to take a darker turn; it is Sondheim, after all.

    I wonder if producers made a mistake by changing the logline of the movie to the slightly ambiguous “Careful What you Wish for”. I think this will leave audiences blindsided by the events of the last forty minutes of the film that most people familiar with the stage show will know are coming. I dunno. Just a thought.

    This esoteric and pedantic comment was brought to you by Chapter One of Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”. Berate me as you see fit, Interwebz.


    • That’s an interesting point. I will admit I hadn’t seen the stage play and didn’t know the film’s ultimate intentions. It shouldn’t make a difference though since I am a movie critic not a theater critic. Into the Woods, as a film, didn’t enchant me.


  4. This always struck me as quite peculiar on the back of its trailers and such. Not out in the UK yet, shame it only partially works. Excellent cast! Great review Mark.



  5. I too thought it should have ended about 30 minutes after it did.


  6. Great review Mark. Despite how much I enjoyed the performances (I was delighted by Streep, Blunt and Kendrick), I left this film with an uneasy feeling. I think the tone shift was too drastic. If it had a little more “tongue in cheek” subversiveness to it in the beginning, the third act wouldn’t feel like a shock of “too much darkness after too much whimsy” in my opinion. I agree with you, in the sense that if they kept it “light” and ended it at 75 mins in, it would be a really enjoyable family film, but of course it wouldn’t be true to the source material and fans of it would probably be disappointed by that.


    • I agree that if they had more subversiveness in the beginning, the tonal shift wouldn’t have been so jarring. I think they wanted to keep it PG friendly for families. It was a misguided production.


  7. I always smile when I hear about Into the Woods because of a certain memory I have. Back in middle school, whenever the teachers running the school play were about to reveal what it would be that year, the one teacher would say, “It’s Into the Woods.” Jokingly, every single year.

    Anyway. I might see this just because I like Rob Marshall. Of course I enjoyed Chicago, and then I enjoyed Nine a lot more than most people did. Hopefully I’ll enjoy Into the Woods too.

    Good review here. Have you seen the play? I’m just wondering if the second half of the play falls apart after a false ending as well, or if it’s purely the way Into the Woods was translated to film.


    • I haven’t seen the play. I’ve heard it was more adult in the first half so the tonal about face wasn’t so out of the ordinary. Also, plays have intermissions which would have helped break up this incredibly long production.


  8. Some Dude Says:

    I’m aware that posting a comment on the internet has never and likely will never change someone’s mind about something, but I kinda felt compelled to chime in here given what appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what this work is about at its most basic level. Which is a very “holier than thou” thing to say I grant you, but I don’t think I’m wrong.

    To me, and I am extremely confident I’m not alone in this interpretation, this show is about choices. It’s about the choices we make in our lives in the pursuit of the things we think we want. It’s also about the consequences of those choices, and what happens when we actually DO get those things. The woods, in this show, represent life, with all its twists and turns and unknowns, and how we venture forth into it, pursuing the things we want (or THINK we want). Sometimes we lose our way, sometimes things happen in the woods that weren’t what we expected.

    Fairy tales are the perfect vehicle for conveying this because for many of us, we’re used to them ending after everyone gets what they wanted when they started. Cinderella gets her prince, Jack and his mother end up rich, the Baker and his Wife reverse the curse and get their child. But unlike in fairy tales, life doesn’t end with the “happily ever after.” And so these characters, which are taken from one-dimensional archetypes and turned into real people (full of faults and fickleness), find themselves dealing with the consequences of the choices they’ve made in that darker last half. To use the princes as an example, how many of us have discovered after finally getting that girl/guy we were chasing after, it was really the thrill of the chase we liked all along?

    Side note: In the stage production, there’s a narrator character that exists outside the story until the rest of the company turns on him and sacrifices him to the lady giant. I didn’t mind the change, as I understood it was to streamline the movie and make it more manageable and it didn’t really interfere with the central conceit, but in the stage production that event causes everyone to stand around and wonder, “Wait, so now what happens? What do we do now that we don’t have anyone telling us how the story unfolds?” Kind of reinforces the notion that our lives are NOT fairy tales, and that there isn’t someone else out there telling us how everything works out. It’s up to us.

    Long story short, to say that this movie should do away with the last half misses the point of even having the first half in the first place. It’s there specifically to set up the turn, and it drops a lot of hints along the way that these aren’t the classic stories as you know them. Now maybe you think the change was somewhat abrupt (and I agree that having an intermission could play a big role in separating it into more distinct acts), and if that’s the case I guess I wouldn’t necessarily fault you though I don’t really agree. But this is a show that has some truths about life that hit really close to home, and those are entirely lost without that third act.

    Suffice it to say I thought this adaptation did a good job of maintaining the overall spirit of the original show.


    • I get that the point was to subvert what had happened in the first half. I just don’t think it was presented well. The first half was very sanitized and Disney. For example Johnny Depp’s Wolf was a sexual predator in the play. None of that is in the movie. The first half is light and funny. The second is abruptly dark and nasty. The two halves didn’t gel.

      It also had pacing problems. It’s extremely long.

      Regardless – if this is indeed a faithful adaptation, then there’s also the possibility that I wouldn’t like the play either. 🙂

      Appreciate the detailed comment. I admire your passion for the film. I wish I shared it. 🙂


  9. I totally agree with your excellent review. I also can only comment by what I’ve seen and I gave it 3 stars. The first ending made me happy and I was ready to go. When I realized there was still 45 min left, I was stunned. The characters changed and started acting strange. Different, but not for my taste.


  10. ” For roughly 75 minutes – 60% of the film – the formula works.” -Agreed. For me, things also started to break down after the “Happily Ever After” portion. The songs are catchy and I think “Agony” is the peak of this film succeeding at what it set out to do. Chris Pine is brilliant and he seemed to be one of the few actors who got that they were in a comedy. The rest didn’t really seem to get it. Also, I didn’t like the filmmakers decision to cast actual children as Red Riding Hood and Jack. I think those parts would have benefited from older people who could better handle the pitter patter lyrics and the satire. They were one of the worst parts of the movie for me. I liked the musical before, so I was disappointed by this adaptation.


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