Earlier this year, the relationship between Stephen Sondheim and fans of his Broadway hit Into the Woods wasn’t looking as if it would end happily ever after. In a June New Yorker article, Sondheim, who co-wrote the postmodern fairy-tale mash-up with James Lapine, revealed he had okayed cutting or significantly toning down several controversial elements of the story to make the Disney film adaptation more family friendly. Cue Internet backlash and a backpedaling statement from Sondheim, assuring fans the movie would be more faithful to the source material than previously reported. Half a year later, the fanboy furor has simmered down, and what we’re left with is a good, if “nicer”-than-the-original, take on the much-loved musical.
Into the Woods opens “once upon a time” in a magical realm populated by a veritable who’s who of familiar faces, including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), and Rapunzel. Less known in folklore circles but key to the story are the childless Baker (James Corden) and Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt). As the couple discovers, it turns out babies come from lifting the infertility spell cast by the neighborhood Witch (Meryl Streep, a pleasure as always), who sets them on a mutually beneficial scavenger hunt to track down a smorgasbord of oddities to lift their curse. Once their quest is in full swing, though, their story starts to intersect with those of the more well-known characters, setting off a chain reaction that propels each tale into uncharted territory and raises troubling questions about what happens after “ever after.”
Despite the Disney logo before film’s open, this movie is more Brothers Grimm than Magic Kingdom, and some of the grittier details omitted from Walt’s versions (e.g., chopped off toes in Cinderella) are present here — though done off-screen, of course. There are a handful of campy casting choices, some of which work (Chris Pine as the “charming” Prince) and others that don’t (Johnny Depp in a mercifully short appearance as the Wolf); however, the casting by and large — from the leads down to the child actors and supporting cast, including the likes of Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mom — is top-notch, and the musical numbers are clever and well sung (if a touch stagy). With its two-hour runtime and heady morals on the consequences of wish fulfillment and virtues of critical thinking crammed into the final act, the film can oddly feel both rushed and too long. But like Frozen, that other subversive Disney musical of recent memory, this movie offers a refreshing twist on tales as old as time and thought-provoking takeaways fit for kids and adults alike.