Into the Woods is a movie adaptation of a Stephen Sondheim musical theater piece. And now it’s also a Disney movie. And I honestly never thought I’d type those two sentences together.
True Confession 1: I love musicals, and musical comedies, but I’ve never seen the stage version of Into the Woods, so, though I know about the play, everything came as a surprise. However, I do know Sondheim. And he doesn’t write for children.
Yes, Sondheim took children’s fairy tales – very authentically to the original versions, too, with all their brutality – and made them into a celebrated piece of musical theater, but those celebrating weren’t bringing their tiny tots along to that play.
First the good stuff. The acting is all, across the board, excellent. As is the singing and whatever little dancing there is. The sets are gorgeous. The color palettes are stunning. And the songs are clever. The script is, too. There are a lot of laughs, danger, action, pathos, and many favorite fairy tales tangled together.
True Confession 2: The hubs enjoyed this more than I did, but that holds true for other movies by Rob Marshall. He liked Chicago more than I did, and while he didn’t like Moulin Rouge I loathed it, and I’m not a giant fan of this movie, so I think I can safely say that I don’t care for Rob Marshall’s direction. He’s a very good director, but there’s something about how he does things that leaves me at a distance, never fully engaged, and therefore far too able to think about what’s going on while it’s going on. (Versus, say, Steven Spielberg, where, while I’m watching, I’m totally engrossed and it’s only after I leave the theater that I think, “Wow, that was so full of plot holes.”)
True Confession 3: Before I wrote this review, I verified with a close pal who’s seen the musical many times that the tone and everything else I didn’t like was the tone and such of the play. It was. However, he had some key points, which I’ll mention as I get to them.
Now the bad stuff. This isn’t a movie for children, and yet it’s going to get a slew of children watching it on Christmas Day. This puppy should be, at least, rated PG-13. But it’s a Disney movie, and there are no dirty words, so it scored a PG. Meaning any kid can trot in and see it.
So why shouldn’t they see it? For starters, in the first ten minutes there’s a long scene and musical number featuring Johnny Depp (Look, kids, it’s Captain Jack Sparrow singing about having sex with a girl who, despite what her birth certificate may say, looks about eleven or twelve! Ha ha ha, Merry Pedophilia Christmas!) that was extremely squicky because it was clearly about sex with a child. In a play for adults, okay, knowing laughs, because the whole Little Red Riding Hood story was a metaphor for this anyway – Grimm’s “Don’t Take Candy From Strangers” warning for their age. But I don’t envy the parents who get to explain this to their kids. There are other reasons, but this is my biggest reason not to take any kid under 13.
My friend who’s seen the play said that he figured that it would be handled like they did in Pirates of the Caribbean. However, in that movie, when the pirates mildly threaten Elizabeth, she is already of marriageable age, meaning she’s an adult, AND we’ve seen her fight back, reasonably successfully. Plus, those pirates aren’t singing about having sex with their food in none too subtle metaphor. They make the point that they have no pleasures of the flesh at all anymore. Meaning that the danger that a woman who’s at least eighteen is facing is far less threatening than the danger a little girl of twelve who’s in danger of being eaten alive is facing.
There are also no positive female characters in this entire movie. One character who’s smart, loving, spunky, dedicated, and threatening to become fully and gloriously three-dimensional is basically sexually assaulted by someone who is so far above her station that she literally can’t say no. That he’s handsome is nice and all, but it’s really clear that she’s not getting out of the situation without a lot of bad things happening. But, you know, that makes her a bad girl, I guess, so while nothing at all happens to her attacker, she’s punished in a very fast and final way. That message is extremely clear and also very negative.
The other female characters are all two-dimensional. Any time they seem to be heading for three dimensions, they instantly change their minds and go back to the mere two dimensions they’re allowed. Some don’t even get two dimensions (Rapunzel, I’m looking at you, babe).
There’s also a strong “don’t aspire above your station” theme, and an “all you really need to be happy is a house to clean, a nice man, and a bunch of children”. This is a FINE mindset, but it’s shown to be the ONLY good mindset. Any straying from this theme and you have bad things happen to you, ladies.
The movie is clearly divided into two parts. The first is in a bright color palette and has a happy ending. And, literally, as we hit this part, I thought the movie was over. But no, it’s not over. The second part, and the dark palette, comes next.
This break is not handled skillfully at all. It also glosses over something that, in the play, is vitally important – the fact that the characters are expressing that they’re bored or unhappy with their happily ever afters. This is one of those points I verified with my friend. It’s clear, in the play, that all is not perfect for the characters even though they got their happy endings. In the movie version, the characters are all literally happily waving at each other and sharing the joy of finally having gotten their hard-earned happy rewards, and then, bam, the dark palette comes in and suddenly, everyone is completely out of character for what they’ve been for the first half with no explanation at all.
There are several songs from the play that were cut from the film version, and I’m guessing one of them was the number that gave us the transition from bright and happy to dark and dismal. The movie is already two hours long and, due to this shift, it feels like it, but I’d have been happy for those five minutes more that would have possibly made the second half of the movie seem like it made sense with what had come before.
Most of the characters are hard to embrace, so to speak, which is a Sondheim thing, too. He doesn’t necessarily write about people you want to spend a lot of time with. (Sweeney Todd, anyone?) Again, just fine for a film focused towards adults. Not so hot when it’s being viewed by little kids. Yes, they may relate to Jack or Red… and you might not want them to after you see how those two handle losing their parents.
So, in a nutshell (I know, too late), if you:
- are an adult not taking any children and you loved or liked Chicago, Moulin Rouge, or any other Rob Marshall movie and/or you loved the stage version of Into the Woods – go see this, you’ll at least like and probably love it.
- are an adult who didn’t care for Chicago, Moulin Rouge, or other Rob Marshall movies – you’re probably not going to like this one, either.
- are an adult who doesn’t want to go to a movie where there’s 10% dialog and 90% singing – give this one a pass, because it’s possibly only 5% dialog and 95% singing.
- are an adult taking any child under the age of 13 with you – ask yourself if you want to explain the pedophilia song (one of the catchiest, by the way), explain why the lady (you’re spoilt for choice on this one) had to die, or explain why, after Red spends three minutes saying that giants are people, too, and then our remaining main cast members sing about this for at least another three minutes, they decide that giants are not people, too, after all.
I’m certain this is going to be a huge hit and beloved by many. I didn’t hate this film – I’m glad I saw it, but I’m also glad I didn’t pay for it. Most aren’t going to feel that way at all. However, I think that this property coming out via Disney means that people are going to go with their kids based on their faith in a brand that maintains certain standards, while not realizing that the mix of Sondheim and Disney, while entertaining, isn’t necessarily wholesome.
Into the Woods2.5
This isn’t a movie for children, and yet it’s going to get a slew of children watching it on Christmas Day. This puppy should be, at least, rated PG-13.