Specific movie plot spoilers are marked, so if you already know the musical (or simply don’t care), it’s safe to read .
“I wish,” the (arguable) theme throughout Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Into the Woods, was the one thing not muttered by the audience of the pre-screening I attended Monday night, December 8th. Why? The Tony-winning Broadway show turned Disney motion picture left little to be desired- much to my (pleasant) surprise. The Long Center, in partnership with Moroch Entertainment and Regal Cinemas, partnered up to host an exclusive pre (and when I say pre I mean pre…this screening was held the same night as the world premiere in New York. We saw the film the same night as the cast did) screening. And, like I said, as the credits rolled, I didn’t wish for much else.
Set against the backdrop of “once upon a time…” Into the Woods dares to tell us what happens to our favorite storybook characters after the alleged “happily ever after.” Narrated by the Baker (a slight change from the original stage show, but one that works given the format of film and the decision to not break the fourth wall), the musicals follows the lives of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who long for a child, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who wishes to go to the ball (against the orders of her stepmother (Christine Baranski) and evil stepsisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard)), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), on her way to Grandmother’s, and young Jack (Les Miz’s Daniel Huttlestone) and his mother (Tracy Ullman), scraping by on little to nothing as Jack sets out to sell his cow and best friend, Milky White. After reliving the fairy tales we know so well, Cinderella, Jack (as in the Beanstalk), the Witch (Meryl Streep), and Little Red Riding Hood are forced to team up and face their fears when a giant threatens to destroy their village. There, however, is where my plot spoilers end, simply because those who know and love the musical already know it, and those who don’t (I’m assuming) would like to be surprised.
With most movie musicals, especially for fans of the Broadway production, there are usually two prime concerns going into the theatre. These consist of a) How much of the story was changed? and b) Are the actors capable of playing the roles to their full potential Can they sing (Here’s looking at you, Russell Crowe)? Thankfully, with Into the Woods, I worried for nothing on both accounts.
The cast brings together several Hollywood A-listers who, thankfully, have both the name to carry the film and the talent to play their parts spectacularly. And then, to add to the dynamic company, Disney had the obvious yet brilliant idea to round out the cast with Broadway vets (Annie’s Lilla Crawford, Next to Normal’s MacKenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), and Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike’s Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince)), all of whom, as expected, were perfectly cast.
The biggest surprise of the evening was Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife. That girl has some extremely impressive pipes, and I’m shocked and a bit upset I’ve never heard her sing before. She took a leading role in her first movie musical and knocked it out of the part, and any die hard Into the Woods fan will tell you the same. Anna Kendrick, of course, was fantastic as always. She needs to make the move back to Broadway as soon as possible, or at the very least, have a lead role in every single movie musical from now until eternity. It was a breath of fresh air to see her subtle sass and spunk brought to the character of Cinderella, with a phenomenal voice to match.
Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince), the furthest thing from musical theatre you would ever imagine, played a humorous prince. His Agony duet with Magnussen by far brought the biggest laugh from the audience, relying on physical humor and entertaining choreography, and even garnering auditorium-full applause. The arguable throwaway in the stage show was transformed into one of the most entertaining numbers of the night.
Meryl Streep, whose less-than-decent vocals in Mamma Mia! gave me- and I’m sure others- a bit of apprehension, pulled off the Witch much better than expected. Whether better editing, singing lessons, or just general improvement, she performed “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” with ease and obvious talent. Her acting, of course, was on point (never a concern). Into the Woods fans? You have little to worry about over casting. I literally cannot find a weak link in this company. Perhaps when I see it again Christmas Day I’ll be down from my pre-screening high and can provide a more critical update (but hopefully not).
Given that this musical, known for its darker elements, was being produced by wholesome Disney, the plot gave me cause for concern as well. As early as June, fans were up in arms about “Any Moment” potentially being cut, and several characters living when, in reality, they meet their doom. Call it the crazy power of the internet, the anxiousness of die hard fans, whatever…(most of) the worrying was for naught. SPOILER ALERT! The wolf’s (Johnny Depp) “Hello, Little Girl”, while not blatantly sexual, can certainly be conceived as so. The Baker’s Wife most definitely has an affair with Cinderella prince (well…it shows them kissing, but us musical fans are more than able to assume what else goes on when the camera pans away), and, immediately after, she dies (albeit from falling off a cliff and not from the Giant squishing her like a bug, but I’ll take what I can get). The one issue I had over and over during the second half of the film was that every single death was done extremely subtly. If I hadn’t had known Jack’s mother died onstage, her death resembled more of a ladylike faint. It took the Baker telling Jack is mother had died for it to really resonate. Same for the Baker’s Wife. One moment you see her let go of the tree she’s holding onto for dear life (you don’t see her fall, it cuts to next scene). Only once Jack tells the Baker he saw his wife at the bottom of a cliff does it sink it. I can only assume this is Disney putting their family-friendly spin on it. While I understand the importance of maintaining the Disney name, garnering a PG rating, and exposing the musical to as many people as possible, I feel as if even this minor change tarnished the story a bit. It, by no means, ruined the movie for me. At this point I’m looking for a critique, and this was definitely one of them. Rapunzel, whose entire storyline onstage revolves around her disobeying her mother and being killed because of it, does not happen. She, instead, happily rides off with her prince into the sunset, causing (for some reason) the Witch to sing an emotional Children Will Listen. The song clearly doesn’t weigh as much emotionally onscreen as onstage, for this very reason. At least 3 characters die in the movie, adding one more, whose entire character arc (and her mother’s) pretty much depends on her death would have satisfied fans, improved the film, and just made much more, obvious sense.
Cutting numbers is understandable to fit the run time of a film, and, given that the film did not break the fourth wall, it’s even more understandable. SPOILER ALERT However, the one change that really irked me was the cutting of the finale. While somewhat present, the song ends after the Witch’s reprise of Children Will Listen before cutting to the credits, at which point we hear the rest of the finale number as the credits roll. I think it would have been beneficial to the film, and satisfying to fans, to have the dead characters reappear (in true movie magic fashion, the way they perfectly created the final scene between the Baker and his Wife), or at the very least, have the remaining living characters sing it. It exists, true, and this may be more of a “pick your battles” criticism, but as the screen went dark after Children Will Listen I had the only agape (with confusion) mouth of the night. The move had some obvious holes, but I guess the slotted spoon does catch the potato (see what I did there?).
The energy in the theater was contagious. Call it excitement over being at an early pre-screening, or even just seeing the characters we know and love onscreen for the first time (trust me, the energy is just as present at Twilight and Hunger Games midnight premieres)…but it was definitely there. Applause after several musical numbers and consistent laughs, sighs, and gasps throughout made the movie an interactive experience, much like the stage show. However, I was also at a pre-screening, meaning it’s safe to assume the majority of audience members were original Broadway production fans or, at the very least, knowledgeable of the original musical. That being said, something tells me the reaction will be similar once I see it Christmas Day, and once not-so-die-hard musical theatre fans see it, appreciate it, and fall in love with musical theatre. I’m not one to (usually) rip movie musicals to shreds, even with its flaws, even Sound of Music Live! got people interested in musicals and live theatre. Thankfully, however, Disney took something magical and, with a star-studded (and talented) cast, a pretty true-to-book script, and beautiful cinematography and orchestrations, simply moved the magic from the Broadway house to the cinema auditorium. And it’s hard to wish for more than that.