Entire family: Not really
2014, 125 min., Color
Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
Bonus features: B-
I was surprised to see that more than 52,000 readers at the Internet Movie Database collectively rated Disney’s Into the Woods a mere 6.2 out of 10. And at Rotten Tomatoes, only 53 percent of some 85,000 viewers liked it. Obviously, these were people more familiar with the Disney formula than the Broadway musical penned by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, because the film version stays pretty true to the theatrical production.
In fact, despite the addition of greater visual depth and special effects, Disney’s Into the Woods has a very staged feel to it, except that the actors aren’t consciously playing to the audience. We’re not talking about the insertion of occasional songs, either. Like an operetta, Into the Woods features plenty of monologues and conversations that are sung rather than spoken. It’s a very theatrical film, in other words, and I can see where, if you’re not expecting that, it could throw you for a loop.
So could the encroachment of serious themes and an ending that undercuts the fairytale notion of happily-ever-after. You and your family may find yourself tearing up, and that’s almost unheard of with a Disney film. In the past, there may have been weepy Bambi’s mother and Old Yeller moments, but all was usually well that ended well. There’s a difference between a happy ending and a hard-earned optimism that reinforces the old adage about making lemonade when life gives you lemons, and it’s the latter that audiences encounter when they travel vicariously Into the Woods.
Disney’s film version may be rated PG, but the emotional content may make the film appropriate only for children old enough to understand and accept what was repackaged in The Lion King as “The Circle of Life.” If they can handle The Lion King, they can handle this. But they have to love live theater and musicals to love Disney’s Into the Woods. It’s that simple. They also need to be able to understand the basic premise, which is an intricate weave of familiar fairytales.
Everybody wants something, which is what the cast sings about in the long, opening title song that begins, “I Wish.” It might help to share ahead of time with smaller children that Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairytales, and that we jump from tale to tale and character to character.
The Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) desperately want a child, and the witch next door who had put a curse on their family (Meryl Streep in her Oscar-nominated role) offers them a way to do that: they must bring her a milky white cow (from the Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale), a slipper of gold (from the Cinderella fairytale), a blood-red cape (from the Red Riding Hood fairytale), and hair as yellow as corn (from the Rapunzel fairytale).
All the characters go into the woods: Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is sent by his mother (Tracy Ullman) to sell the cow, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes there to talk to her dead mother and receive the gift of fine clothes that will allow her to attend the ball, Little Red (Lilla Crawford) skips to her grandmother’s house deep in the woods, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) rebels against her witchy mother by secretly seeing a prince, the baker and his wife try to acquire their objects, and the giant and giant’s wife from Jack and the Beanstalk eventually wreak havoc.
That’s the plot. The story is more complicated. It’s about what it means to have children, to be a mother or father, to raise those children, and to let go of them. It’s about how difficult it is to sustain those first-act happy endings throughout life. And it’s about coping with the loss of loved ones. So you can see where, if people entering the theater think they’re going to see another formulaic Disney movie, Into the Woods will seem more complex, both in terms of the plot and the emotions it evokes.
Much has been made of Johnny Depp’s lecherous (and I might add, delicious) portrayal of the Wolf, dressed in ‘40s attire, but he’s only onscreen for a short scene and aside from a few suggestive remarks that will go right over the heads of youngsters there’s nothing inappropriate. There’s nothing graphic about the terror of the giants, either. And while I’ve spent time talking about the serious or sad elements, Into the Woods also has a lot of funny moments.
Mostly, though, it’s an engaging musical featuring a Tony Award-winning Best Score. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) does a terrific job of adapting the play for the big screen, and his handling of the musical numbers is one of the film’s strengths. In some cases Marshall’s version is an improvement, as when Cinderella’s prince (Chris Pine) meets Rapunzel’s prince (Billy Magnussen) in the woods and they sing a duet by a waterfall about the “Agony” of loving difficult-to-win women.
I was surprised to see that the filmed performance of the Broadway version is rated higher at Amazon than the Disney version. To my way of thinking, the cast and singing are just as strong, and the Disney version will hold more appeal for young viewers. If your family likes musicals, this is a good one for family movie night.
Blu-ray is the way to go on this title, as it looks spectacular in HD, and with a 7.1 sound mix that fills your home theater.
Violence: Worst is probably the cutting off of the stepsisters toe and heel, with no cutting depicted but blood shown
Adult situations: Some suggestive talk in the Wolf’s seduction scene et alia
Takeaways: Be careful what you wish for; parents, children, people make mistakes; family is what you make of it