By Naomi Berwin

Posted on January 20, 2015 in Film with tags Film Review

After months of intense anticipation, last week I saw Into the Woods – at the Impact screen at the Leicester Square Empire, no less (tip: sit at the back, and beware if you’re prone to migraines – the screen is HUGE and the whole experience is pretty intense!). I should start by saying that, yes, Into the Woods is a musical. There’s a lot of singing in it, so if you’re anti-musicals, this probably isn’t the film for you. I, however, am a massive fan, and particularly of Stephen Sondheim, which means that not only was I seriously excited about the prospect of the film adaptation, I was also wary of what they would have done with it, and ready to be very critical.

So I’m pleased to be able to report that, in general, I loved it. As you’d expect from a Disney film, it looked gorgeous, and it sounded pretty gorgeous too. The only problem is that, being a Disney film, it seems they were forced to gloss over some of the darker subtleties that make the musical so special and so interesting.

Before I go into that more, here’s a quick ‘what you need to know’ for the uninitiated. Into the Woods is a conglomeration of various fairytales, woven together into one story. Things go more or less as expected for a while, then start to unravel. The original play is dark, strange and really not for children; one of the key themes is innocence/experience, and how knowing more than you’re ready for can be a dangerous thing.

And that latter point is where a Disney adaptation was bound to fall down. In order to make this a family-friendly film, they’ve stripped out that integral concept pretty much entirely – and that’s a huge pity, and a waste of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics. The most obvious example of this is in the scene with Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. In the stage musical, it is clear that their interaction is about far more than just a meal, but about all kinds of carnal pleasure, and that Red Riding Hood is, in Sondheim’s words, ‘excited and scared’ at the same time. There’s been a lot of controversy, from people who are aware of the connotations, about the fact that Red Riding Hood is played by the film by an extremely young girl (Lilla Crawford looks around 12 or 13) and that having her play opposite Johnny Depp’s wolf is inappropriate; I was intrigued to see whether Disney had actually gone cutting edge in casting someone barely on the brink of puberty, but in fact it was the opposite – the whole thing is played completely innocently, ignoring all the double meaning that Sondheim had intended to convey.

It’s not just in this scene that this happens, but for the sake of word count and spoiler avoidance I won’t go on and on. And I don’t want to over-emphasise the negative, because for all its flaws, it’s still an enjoyable film and I had a great time watching it – and given the Disney limitations, they’ve probably done about as good a job as they could. (I’d be really interested to hear what people who hadn’t seen the stage show thought of it, whether for them the distillation of the message to ‘be careful what you wish for’ is less of a blatant over-simplification.)

So I’ll end with some positives:

  1. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife – a revelation! She pretty much stole every scene she was in.
  2. The rest of the cast, who were quite excellent (apart from Johnny Depp…).
  3. The scene in which the two charming princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, compete as to who is in greater ‘Agony’ in their love life. (There’s a shirt-ripping moment that is fairly special.)
  4. Meryl Streep as the Witch – is there anything the woman cannot do?

In summation, not perfect by a long shot, but – provided you like a good musical and a dark twist on a fairytale (and who doesn’t?!) – well worth a watch.

Into the Woods Meryl Streep


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