IntotheWoodscoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes
1987, 153 min., Color
Not rated (would be PG for several intense sequences)
Image Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: None
Opening song (audio only) 

 Into the Woods is a strange musical that’s about to get even stranger this Christmas when Disney’s film version debuts with Johnny Depp as the wolf and Meryl Streep as the witch. But if you want to see the original Broadway production that inspired it, James Lapine does a nice job of filming a performance from the show’s initial 1987 run, with camerawork that pulls in tight for plenty of medium shots that give the stage production a filmic feel—especially since there are no audience reaction shots. It’s a technically accomplished film version of a real Broadway production.

Into the Woods earned Bernadette Peters a Tony Award for Best Actress and statues as well for Stephen Sondheim (Best Score) and Lapine (Best Book). You can see why. There are a few catchy songs, but you won’t walk away singing the score the way you might with something like Frozen. In weaving together the stories of Cinderella, Jack and his mother (and the beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and the Baker and the Baker’s Wife, Lapine uses the witch as a lynch pin and Sondheim creates song after song that mimics the narrative structure with its high level of discordance and overlapping and interwoven sung lines. That’s one thing that makes this Broadway musical distinctive, and one thing that adds a level of sophistication that might push it beyond the comfort zone of some younger viewers.

What makes Into the Woods strange is that after a first act that playfully pokes fun of children’s fairy tales while at the same time celebrating them, a second act deconstructs the whole idea of fairytale endings by introducing darker elements . . . certain to become even darker in the 2014 film, given Hollywood’s recent forays into fairy tales. Not that the first half is rosy-cheeked and cheery, mind you. Cinderella’s stepmother cuts off parts of her daughters’ feet so that the prince detects they’re not the real deal because of the blood that drips into the golden slipper (only a cartoon character can wear a GLASS slipper). And the wolf’s stomach is cut open so the Red Riding Meal he ingested can escape unharmed. In other words, this fairytale mash-up can be pretty Grimm in an “ewwww” sort of way, despite the infusion of humor at every turn.  

IntotheWoodsscreenPeters is super as a witch who sets the disparate fairy tales on a collision course when she keeps her daughter, Rapunzel, locked up in a tower and demands that the Baker and his Wife provide her with a list of things that they can only get from the other fairytale characters . . . or else the Baker and His Wife will have to give up their unborn child. Danielle Ferland plays Little Red Riding Hood as an annoying goody two-shoes, and the prosthetics and open chest of The Wolf lacks only a gold chain necklace to be the seducer he is in this modern fairy tale. And whether young viewers warm to this will depend largely on if they’re able to accept an onstage narrator dressed in an ordinary suit and tie (Tom Aldredge) who at one point is actually manhandled by the characters. As I said, there are some strange moments here, but the music and what the playwrights have to say about fairy tales is never lacking for interesting lines or a private-joke wink at the audience.

In the end, though, despite some darned good filming, it’s still a performance, and watching it on a television set isn’t the same as sitting in the audience. If you have children who aspire to act, they can learn far more from watching pros on a Broadway stage in this production than they can by watching a film or TV that doesn’t have a visible layer of performance self-awareness and audience interplay. And though the other songs aren’t exactly singable, it really is hard not to hum the title tune for days after seeing this musical comedy. At 153 minutes it’s long enough that you’ll all want to pretend you’re going out into the lobby, and when the stepdaughters’ feet are cut you’ll have to assure your little ones that it’s all pretend. Is it for the whole family? Probably, because, aside from a few scenes like that, smaller children won’t understand the darker themes, and the costumes and plots are really right out of fairytale books.