My 100 Favourite Films In Review, Number 95 – Into The Woods

95 – Into The Woods:

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Since I seem to be in that kind of mood, we’re having a double bill of fairy tale themed movies. But while they may deal with similar stories, they are two very different films. Namely this film originated as a Broadway musical – by none other than Stephen Sondheim. As in the genius that brought us West Side Story, Gypsy and Sweeny Todd, among many others. The musical is known for its cynical and often downright depressing look at the world of fairy tales – involving infidelity, abusive parents, mental illness and even a character’s suicide. So it should come as a huge surprise that when the film adaptation came along, it was done by Disney. As in the studio synonymous with the phrase ‘Disneyfication’. This is one of the more recent entries on my list, coming out at the end of 2014 and bleeding into 2015. I was obsessed with this movie when I saw it. I’ve already seen it multiple times since then and I’ve been recommending it to as many people as possible. I even had the soundtrack on a loop so I could listen to it at work for around two months. So you bet it earns a spot on my list. It’s not higher up because…well that reason should be obvious once we get a few minutes in. So let’s waste no time then.

Before going into the plot, I’m going to ask about how long everyone thinks the whole fairy tale deconstruction concept has been around. The first really famous example was the Dreamworks animated film Shrek – which parodied the 90s Disney films the public were growing sick of. Dreamworks followed that up with Hoodwinked, which used similar ideas. Disney got in on the trend, parodying themselves with 2007’s Enchanted. Outside of cinema, novelist Gregory Maguire started publishing books such as Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror Mirror – acting as revisionist versions of famous fairy tales. Likewise The Princess Bride showed that affectionate parodies of fairy tales were appearing as early as the 1970s. But it was Into The Woods on Broadway that really codified a lot of the go-to elements for deconstructing the tales. Prince Charming is really a dick? The Wicked Witch isn’t that bad? Supposed heroes are actually jerks? I guarantee that the Shrek formula of parodying these tales has definitely felt the influence of Into The Woods – even if it didn’t directly take from it. But with fairy tale deconstructions having been done to death since the musical was first run in 1986 – and reconstructions like Tangled, Frozen and the live-action Cinderella showing up – you have to wonder if Into The Woods had anything new to offer a film going audience. Especially one who was already used to such twists. Throughout this review I’ll be comparing some changes the film made and whether or not they worked.

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Our first change is apparent as soon as the film starts. In the musical, there’s a narrator standing to the side of the stage telling us everything. Instead in the film, the narration is done by the Baker (James Corden), who acts as the main character. We’re told of a faraway village in the edge of the woods and then we segue into our introduction song, titled both “Prologue” and “Into The Woods” on the soundtrack. It introduces our protagonists:

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Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) – a poor put-upon girl who is abused by her stepfamily. Her father is a drunken layabout in the musical but he’s not mentioned here, implying he’s dead too. When she hears the King is giving a festival, she hopes to attend and have a couple evenings of fun. Also is blessed with the unique ability of talking to birds.

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Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) – an equally poor farm boy whose only friend is the cow Milky White. Unfortunately there’s no more food in his house and his harpy of a mother (Tracey Ullman) orders him to take the cow to market and sell her.

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Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) – a hungry little girl in a red riding cape. She’s on her way to visit her grandmother in the woods. Doesn’t have much of a motivation, but is more than happy to take free samples of bread and cakes from…

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The Baker and his wife (Emily Blunt) – a couple who long for a child but can’t have one. The reason for this is…

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Meet the Witch next door. You may notice that she’s played by Meryl Streep, the finest actress working today. And you may also notice that despite Ms Streep being well into her 60s, she has never played a witch before. The reason for this is that she was offered three different witch roles as soon as she turned forty – and thus has a rule against playing them. She made an exception for this because…well it’s friggin Stephen Sondheim. Also swaying her decision is the fact that the Witch used to be agelessly beautiful – until the Baker’s father stole from her garden one night. He took a set of beans, which cursed her to a life as an old hag. In retaliation, she demanded the Baker’s new-born daughter as payment. Shortly after this, his wife died and he abandoned his son. It should be noted that the song stops so that the Witch can deliver these details via a rap. Yes, you read that right. Meryl Streep rapping. And it is just as awesome as you’re probably imagining.

What’s not so awesome is the curse the Witch also placed on the family: that nobody would be able to have children. So the couple now know why their…efforts…have amounted to nothing. But there is a glimmer of hope: the Witch can reverse the magic if they create a potion for her. If they bring her a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn – she’ll give them a child immediately. They have three days. And just before the Baker heads out, he finds what appears to be the Witch’s beans in his father’s jacket pocket. And thus all of our protagonists head into the woods around the same time.

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This opening number is something that undoubtedly looks great on stage. Musicals can actually be incredibly hard to translate from the theatre to a film, not least because it’s easier to look less ridiculous when bursting into song on stage. And likewise theatre has the benefit of usually having all participants on stage at the same time for the musical numbers. Indeed for this particular number, all the cast members would be on the stage at the same time to sing this. I don’t even need to explain how or why this wouldn’t be possible in a film. So with such a difficult task at hand, it’s even more impressive just how flawless the film’s opening is. All the voices flow together, and the cutting between various characters for different parts of the song is done so naturally. The end of the song as the voices start to harmonise is really something special. Having not seen the musical on stage before, I was really blown away when I saw this in the cinema. I can only imagine how much better it is when it’s done on the stage.

But now we follow Cinderella, visiting a willow tree that has grown up over her mother’s grave. As a result mother delivers a verse from beyond the grave saying that her daughter can make a wish. She stresses that the girl needs to make sure what she wishes for is what she actually wants – a major theme in this particular story. For those curious about why this conjures Cinderella’s dress instead of a fairy godmother, this is because there are two different versions of the fairy tale. The Disney animated film and its live action remake follow the one by Charles Perrault – which features a fairy godmother, pumpkin carriage and a ball for only one night. Into The Woods adapts the Brothers Grimm version – where a wish at her mother’s grave grants her the dress and shoes, and a ball that lasts for three days. This version also features a rather unpleasant fate for the stepsisters that we’ll get to later…

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And no, stepmother does not just give really intense pedicures. 

It’s interesting to note that even Cinderella’s biological mother is subject to different interpretations, and she doesn’t appear past this scene. Although she’s portrayed as a wise caring mentor here in the film, the original production had a different approach. There Cinderella’s mother seems to be rather manipulative – implying that she was abusive too in her life. That’s an interesting idea but it probably wouldn’t fit with the tone of the film. I’ve noticed that the film is a little less satirical than the original musical, opting to play some of the satire for drama. Nonetheless Cinderella gets her dress and slippers, but appears to have to walk to the palace herself. The tree isn’t exactly going out of its way to satisfy its customers.

We now switch to Red Riding Hood skipping through the woods. She appears to have strayed from the path and bumps into…

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I’m sure plenty of people rolled their eyes and went “of course” as soon as they heard that Johnny Depp would be playing the Big Bad Wolf. You’d expect, this film being produced by Disney, the wolf would be toned down from what he’s like on stage. Exhibit A…

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Or should I say ‘Exhibit P’?

But the creepy undertones from the musical are still intact. And some fans feel that the film is even creepier; Red Riding Hood is typically played by an older actress on the stage, who just acts like a child. Here she’s portrayed by an actual twelve year old. So the wolf’s song “Hello Little Girl” serves to really play up the sexual predator aspect of his character – complete with opening his coat to tempt Red with some candy. As far as songs go, it’s another good one – with nice switches in tone throughout. When the wolf is addressing Red, it’s upbeat and showy. It then becomes darker as we get the wolf’s sinister inner monologue. The song compliments Johnny Depp’s voice nicely, and he bounces off Lilla Crawford very well. I almost wish the wolf had a bigger role. Anyway he manages to persuade Red Riding Hood to take a small delay to pick flowers. It’s there that the Baker spies her, and the Witch pops up to tell him it’s the cape they need. She also explains that she’s not allowed to touch any of the items, which is why she needs the Baker and his wife to do it for her. The Witch runs off in a panic when she hears singing coming from a faraway part of the woods. Hmm now what famous character goes around singing in the woods?

The Sound of Music. 20th Century Fox For Bob/Art Desk.

Whilst I would love to see how Maria von Trapp would fit in with the fairy tale ensemble, alas it’s not. We’ll find out later. The Baker’s attempts to snatch the cape from Red Riding Hood are laughably feeble. What’s also laughable is Lilla Crawford’s performance – in the best possible way. She’s absolutely hysterical as Red Riding Hood, and she had one of the standout performances in an already very solidly cast film. She’s hilarious as she holds a fifteen-second scream until the Baker gives her back the cape, and her line “I’d rather a wolf than you any day!” accompanied by a stamp to the foot. The Baker discovers that his wife has followed him into the woods, and they both spot Jack walking his cow. As Milky White’s name suggests, she’s white as milk. Although the two don’t have five pounds to buy her, Mrs Baker claims that their beans carry magic that “defies description” and that’s enough to convince Jack to part with the animal. Despite having one item down, the Baker is already getting cold feet. He worries that he’s not cut out to be a father, since his own high tailed it so many years ago. His wife urges him to at least break the spell for her sake. He agrees but insists on doing the rest himself, sending her home with the cow.

It’s now time to discover the identity of the strange singing person far off in the forest. It’s none other than Rapunzel – she of the beautiful long golden hair. The narration confirms that she is the Baker’s long lost sister. Unfortunately since the narrator is now the Baker, this creates a teensy plot hole. Not to spoil the rest of the film, but Rapunzel and the Baker never meet or even learn about each other. So that begs the question of how the Baker knows Rapunzel is his sister in the narration. There is a tiny way to hand wave it that I’ll get to later on, but what’s important here is the attitude of the Witch. Despite trapping her daughter in a tower, she shows a softer side towards Rapunzel. It looks as if she genuinely cares for the girl. But unfortunately for Mommy Dearest, a handsome prince has heard Rapunzel’s singing and come across the tower.

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Moving back to the other side of the woods, Red Riding Hood finds the door to Granny’s house already open. And she quickly learns that the person in bed is not Granny at all. Luckily the Baker hears the screams and cuts him open, freeing grandmother and granddaughter. Red Riding Hood thanks him and gives him her cape. Her song “I Know Things Now” acts as a reprise to “Hello Little Girl” – and continues the theme of her relationship with the wolf. It includes lyrics about how he made her feel excited and scared at the same time, and showed her things “that I never thought to explore” – which is all the more suggestive since it’s being sung by a child. Lilla Crawford sings the song flawlessly. I already said she was a notable standout when I saw the film, and she definitely has a bright future in the entertainment business. With such an enchanting voice and good comic timing, I’m sure we’ll see her in many big projects in the future. Red happily skips back inside Granny’s house, hoping to get a new coat made from the wolf’s skin.

But if there’s someone who isn’t happy, it’s Jack’s Mother. None too pleased about her son being sent for money and returning with beans, she sends him to bed without supper and tosses the beans outside. Neither of them notice the beanstalk now growing in the garden. Elsewhere we’re told that Cinderella got to day one of the festival and even danced with the prince – but she runs off as the night goes on. We now meet said prince, played by Chris Pine – who hilariously accepted the role and then discovered the musical’s extremely dedicated fanbase. Understandably there were many freakouts. But equally understandably, he declares he must find Cinderella. The girl ends up crashing into Mrs Baker and the cow. Mrs Baker is quite taken with the prince, but lies and says she hasn’t seen anyone. Once they’re gone, Cinderella sings “A Very Nice Prince” – which gives an interpretation that I’m surprised more Cinderella adaptations haven’t used. This song suggests that Cinderella just went to the ball wanting to let her hair down for the evening – and that attracting the Prince was an awkward accident. As Cinders runs off home, Mrs Baker notices her slippers and tries to chase after her. However Milky White also runs off, and the Witch takes the time to pop up out of nowhere and yell that she only has two days left.

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The next morning, Jack’s mother wakes up to find a leaf hanging over her face. She walks outside and Tracey Ullman gives one of the best delayed reactions ever as she discovers a beanstalk fully grown. Cut to Jack approaching the Baker with five gold pieces. Where did a poor farm boy get such riches? It turns out there’s a giantess at the top of the beanstalk. Jack hit it off with her – until her husband walked in. So he stole the gold and ran. This is another little piece that’s a teensy bit suggestive. One of the lyrics in “Giants In The Sky” has Jack sing about the giantess holding him “close to her giant’s breast”, making it seem as though the giant caught his wife doing the dirty. I want to really praise the efforts of Daniel Huttlestone as Jack. Not just for his singing ability – although this is another good song. Jack in the original musical is probably the least likeable out of the main cast. While all of them are to blame for everything that goes wrong, Jack is the most responsible. So Daniel Huttlestone had his work cut out for him. And he make Jack very sympathetic, which is helped by him actually being a child – as opposed to an adult acting like one. You can that Jack is just a misguided little boy trying to help his family out in some way, Tracey Ullman playing up his mother’s abusive nature to help this along. The Baker tells him he doesn’t want to sell Milky White back. Jack takes this to mean that he wants *more* gold, and says he’ll run back up the beanstalk to fetch some.

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In the same way that he’ll just go and kill a couple more terrorists.

After a quick rendezvous between Baker and wife, the couple go their separate ways again to try and find the rest of the items. The Baker’s Wife comes across two princes – the same ones that pursued Cinderella and Rapunzel the day before. And thus we get their song “Agony”, quite possibly the manliest musical number ever composed. The way this song is done in the film, it serves to differentiate the two princes. In the original show, they’re both a pair of sleazy womanisers who abandon their wives for Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. But in the film, only Cinderella’s Prince is like this. Rapunzel’s Prince has his affair with Snow White cut out of the story completely. So this serves to make Cinderella’s Prince the bad one and Rapunzel’s the good one. The reason for this change is obvious. Remember this guy?

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Well at the time of Shrek 2, the ‘Prince Charmless’ character had been used before but it wasn’t as mainstream. But nowadays it’s almost a given that the prince in any revisionist fairy tale will turn out to be a jerk. And even if he’s not a jerk, he’ll still be presented as the ‘wrong’ love interest. So it’s kind of impressive how quickly something that was once an unexpected twist on a classic character has now become standard. Or as Scream 4 put it, the unexpected is the new cliché. So it seems that Prince Charming is making something of a comeback. The remake of Cinderella played it straight, just with a bit more character development. Likewise Once Upon A Time has featured five princes and only one of them has fit the Prince Charmless bill. So we have a contrast between two brothers – one Charmless and one Charming. Throughout this song you can see them having fun with the idea that Rapunzel’s Prince is the younger and dorkier brother – and he’s thus trying to copy everything the other one does.

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Even this.

This song is all kinds of awesome and hilarious, and makes me wish the princes had more screen time. But Mrs Baker overhears the second prince describing Rapunzel’s hair as “yellow as corn”, and so she takes a stroll over to the tower. Pretending to be the Prince, she’s able to get Rapunzel to let her hair down and scurry off with a bit of it. She also collides with Cinderella, running from the ball a second time. Naturally the young lady doesn’t take kindly to a stranger trying to steal her shoes and gets away. But Mrs Baker gets a consolation prize in the form of another moment with the Prince. Not too far away, her husband manages to find Milky White. Husband and wife reunite and celebrate having 3/4 with “It Takes Two” – a nice bouncy duet where they agree they should work together to get the fourth item. This is one song I wasn’t sold on when I first watched the film, but it grew on me in repeated watchings. Emily Blunt and James Corden’s voices complement each other in a way you wouldn’t expect. Again, like the duo in Seeking A Friend For The End of the World, this is a pairing you wouldn’t think would work so well – and yet they make a very believable and lovable couple. The two are the MVPs of the cast, along with the child actors.

Jack causes trouble for a second husband and wife today by interrupting the moment. He’s returned from his trip up the beanstalk with a golden egg. An argument ensues about who gets to take the cow now. Milky White decides to take a third option – and dies on the spot. The Witch’s screeching tells them that two midnights have passed – with just one day left for them to get the slipper and find another cow. Meanwhile at Rapunzel’s tower, she and the prince are having a sweet siesta – aside from his bad attempt at being Tarzan…

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Talk about agony.

Things get worse for Prince Charming as The Witch has caught the two of them kissing. She conjures up a thicket of thorns and blinds the young man. She reads Rapunzel the riot act with “Stay With Me”. This story’s interpretation of the Witch is good old empty nest syndrome – with an extra helping of emotional blackmail. The Witch wants to shield her daughter from the evils of the world and views this tryst with the Prince as the ultimate betrayal. This is a song that can vary depending on how the production feels towards the Witch. Unlike Mother Gothel in Disney’s Tangled, this witch actually cares for her daughter. And it’s entirely up to the director whether the song should be played as a mother who feels betrayed by her daughter, or just straight-up emotional abuse. The film leans towards the latter – especially since she’s proven wrong by Rapunzel’s Prince staying faithful to her. Meryl Streep however plays it as the former. So it’s entirely up to you whether the Witch deserves sympathy or not. But as in the fairy tale, she angrily cuts Rapunzel’s hair off and banishes her.

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Jack comes across Red Riding Hood, who now has a fresh wolf skin coat. She doesn’t believe that Jack has been up a beanstalk. She dares Jack to go back up and steal the Giant’s magic harp. Cut to said Giant chasing the boy down the beanstalk. Jack grabs the nearest axe and does a little cutting of his own. When the beanstalk comes crashing down, the force of the Giant hitting the ground creates an earthquake. This hasn’t stopped the festival from continuing its third and final night. Cinderella once again flees – but the Prince has spread tar on the stairs to keep her in place.

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“Nicely done, princey.”

Cinderella then gets her song “On The Steps Of The Palace” – where everything freezes as she dithers on the spot. This is one of my favourite songs in the musical. It’s certainly got the most creative lyrics – with plenty of wordplay in there for those of us who love that kind of thing. Anna Kendrick has gone on record saying that she doesn’t like listening to herself sing. But her voice is lovely and helps bring the song to life. Cinderella can’t make up her mind whether to flee for good or allow herself to be caught. But Cindy chooses a third option: leave one of her shoes on the steps and see what the Prince does from there. Though I must say that the Prince’s attitude towards finding her seems less about true love and more in the spirit of Captain Ahab.

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Mrs Baker intercepts her on the path and offers her the last bean in exchange for the shoe. Cinderella tosses it away and refuses. But Mrs Baker instead offers her own shoes, and Cinders takes off into the night. The Steward sees this and tries to grab the shoe, but the Prince calls him off since they just need one. As the royal procession goes one way and Mrs Baker goes the other, nobody notices a second beanstalk growing…

Back at Cinderella’s house, the Prince has ordered that every eligible maiden has to try on the shoe. Cindy’s stepmother has a solution that may get one of her daughters on the throne. I believe it’s time to give you that detail that separates the Brothers Grimm version from the Charles Perrault one. You see, since neither stepsister’s foot fits the shoe, their mother comes up with a rather extreme solution: cut off one daughter’s heel, and the other’s big toe. You’d think that Disney would leave this out but nope. It happens on camera but out of frame. Chris Pine’s reactions to both attempts will make you chuckle. Especially Lucinda’s attempt, where he instead looks more impressed that she’s able to walk minus one of her heels. Is this a good time to mention that Lucy Punch, who plays Lucinda, has played one of Cinderella’s stepsisters in three other projects?

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As Hattie in Ella Enchanted
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Regan in Cinderella.
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As Fenola Gay in BBC’s Fairy Tales.

The Prince shows he’s not a complete dolt and recognises Cinderella immediately. Of course she fits the slipper and he takes her for his bride. Cindy’s birds decide to get some revenge on her stepsisters by blinding them. Elsewhere we see that Rapunzel has been banished to a swamp that appears to be still in the woods. It was a desert in the musical and Rapunzel had produced twins by the time the Prince found her. Here it’s the same night and the Prince finds her rather easily for a man who’s just been blinded. Unless this dude is secretly…

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Rapunzel’s tears somehow restore his eyes (which makes you wonder why Matt Murdock’s family never tried *that*) and they can be together. And since she doesn’t have the kids, they can at least enjoy the honeymoon period while it lasts. Meanwhile the Baker has found a replacement cow and meets up with his wife. Sadly it turns out he couldn’t get a white cow and one that’s covered with flour just will not do. But less sadly, the Witch nonchalantly says she’ll bring Milky White back to life. So she does and they feed the other items to the cow. But something is wrong, and then you remember where Mrs Baker got that hair from. The Witch can’t have touched any of the objects, meaning they can’t use Rapunzel’s hair. But Jack has a solution: actual corn silk.

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That seems to work, as Milky White produces some milk that the Witch drinks. At once she’s transformed back into her young and beautiful self. And unlike when it happens in Beauty and the Beast, the after form is the better one. Though that didn’t stop Meryl Streep from joking that they needed more make-up for the Witch’s beautiful form. Sure enough the deal follows through – with Mrs Baker becoming pregnant instantly. Is this a good time to mention that Emily Blunt was five months pregnant when production started? Anyway we cut to the wedding of Cinderella and her prince – with a hilarious reaction from Anna Kendrick when she passes Mrs Baker with her baby – and it looks like everyone’s going to live happily ever…

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So yeah, the film does not end there. Even though pretty much everyone thought it would. This is probably the biggest problem with the film and it’s one that nearly every critic pointed out. The point of Into The Woods is for the fairy tales to play out normally, but to then show what happens after ‘Happily Ever After’. The reason this works on the stage is because the show is divided into two acts. Act 1 ends with the second beanstalk growing, so the audience already knows that more is to come. The story neatly divides into two parts on the stage. But the problem in the film is that Act 1 runs for about an hour and ten minutes – which is short but still feature length. So people who don’t know what to expect are jarred that the film goes on for nearly another hour. Sadly this is one glaring problem in an otherwise very solid film. But then again, how exactly does one make such a change work in a film? As said above, the point of the story is that the characters must now face the consequences of their actions.

Anyway as the characters return to the woods, they have trouble finding their way. Red Riding Hood claims the village was completely destroyed. Her mother and grandmother are implied to be dead. It’s not long before we discover that it wasn’t an earthquake – but a giant. A lady giant. The very same one who held Jack “close to her giant’s breast”. She’s played by Frances de la Tour…

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Who needs to get together with Lucy Punch and their agents to talk about ‘type casting’.

And she’s less than pleased that her husband is dead because of Jack. She demands that they hand him over to her. Naturally his mother doesn’t want to do this. And to give her credit, she attempts to stand up to the Giantess. The Steward however pushes her aside, causing her to knock her head off a log. This is unfortunately another change that doesn’t quite work in the film. Her death in the stage show is much more obvious, where the Steward clubs her in the back of the head. But this had to be changed to preserve the PG rating. And the result is that you don’t realise she’s died until the Baker tells us much later. There was apparently a scene scripted where she would have tried to help but collapsed, and her body would be found a little later. Again that presumably was too dark for a PG film. But they’re able to buy some time by telling the Giantess that Jack is off in the other part of the woods. This then leads to our moral conundrum: do the characters sacrifice a little boy to the giantess in order to save their skins? Both sides have a valid point of view. After all, if he isn’t handed over, the giantess will crush the entire kingdom. But then again, he’s still just a child who made a mistake. This is something I’ll get into more detail a little later on.

It’s time to find out what’s happened to Rapunzel. She’s returned to where her tower used to stand, but it’s been destroyed by the Giantess too. She initially doesn’t recognise the Witch now that she’s young and pretty again. But when she does, she politely tells her stepmother to eff off and rides off into the sunset with her man. Also the Witch no longer has any powers now that she’s got her beauty back. This is a radical departure from what happens in the original show; Rapunzel actually dies. To elaborate, she’s been driven mad by the Witch’s treatment and by having a husband who’s not too interested in her any more. So she runs straight into the Giantess and allows herself to be crushed. Is anyone surprised a Disney film left that out? Stephen Sondheim really pushed for them to kill her off but I’m guessing they decided that suicide was too dark for the film. Within the context of the film it does admittedly make sense. The difference is that Rapunzel is found much later by her prince in the original; long enough for her to have given birth to twins. So her madness stems less from being imprisoned in a tower and more from being banished to a desert immediately after leaving said tower. In the film she’s found the next day, so there’s less time for her sanity to go.

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But enough time to realise that unicorn called Francesca isn’t real.

What’s interesting is that changing Rapunzel’s fate completely changes the characterisation of the Witch. With Rapunzel’s husband cheating on her, and eventually killing herself, the implication seems to be that the Witch was right about the world. The Witch also gets a healthy dose of karma as she watches her daughter kill herself partially as a result of her treatment. In the original this is why she wants to sacrifice Jack to the giantess – after having been traumatised into a cynical despair. Here in the film she gets a different kind of karma; where Rapunzel breaks it off with her and vows never to see her again. So again, the film makes the Witch much less sympathetic.

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Back in the woods, the Baker and his wife split up to search for Jack (leaving the baby with Red). Mrs Baker comes across Cinderella’s Prince. I hope you remember the romantic tension between them in their previous meetings, because if not then his seduction will come completely out of nowhere. A shocking twist in the original show becomes a bit less so in the film – after a decade of Prince Charmless characters in the mainstream. The song “Any Moment” is a testament to Chris Pine’s lovely singing voice. He was reportedly quite shy about singing and his cast members noticed him holding back during rehearsals. It wasn’t until Anna Kendrick overheard him alone that she got to hear the full extent of his abilities. Watching the Prince dip Mrs Baker also becomes hilarious when you read about Emily Blunt being five months pregnant when the scene was filmed – resulting in it being quite an unsexy moment for both of them.

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The Baker comes across Cinderella at her mother’s grave, which has been destroyed in the Giantess’s rampage. She reveals she had to disguise herself as a commoner because she’s not allowed to leave the palace by herself. It seems our Cinders isn’t enjoying the pampered life, as she decides to join the Baker’s little group. We then return to the end of the tryst between their spouses – though the film leaves it open to how far it went. After the Prince leaves, the Baker’s Wife reflects on what just happened with “Moments In The Woods” – which is a very important song when it comes to the musical’s themes. How you take this song really depends on the production. There’s a song earlier that’s not in the film where Mrs Baker is still unsatisfied with life. She’s grown bored with being a mother and wants a bigger house and more excitement etc. So it’s entirely up to the production whether they want to portray her as a woman who just made a mistake or the type who is never happy with what she has. The film seems to take the former, emphasising that the experience made her realise that she does love her husband after all. She realises that her fantasy of a gallant handsome prince kind of pales next to the man who chased around the woods for three days to break a witch’s spell – just to give her the child she always longed for. And that getting a taste of her fantasy just makes her appreciate her reality even more. This goes back to the musical’s theme of how things aren’t in black and white. People are flawed and prone to making mistakes, but what matters is how they learn from them. Mrs Baker cheats on her husband, but it doesn’t make her the villain. She realises her mistake and regrets it instantly, resolving to not stray again. Unfortunately for her, the Giantess is close by and she ends up falling off a cliff – in a manner that’s usually reserved for Disney *Villains*.

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Which shows you what the movie really thinks of her.

The Baker does not take news of his wife’s death well when Jack reveals it to him, and thus agrees with The Witch that Jack should be handed over. This brings us “Your Fault” – a masterpiece of wordplay. The original stage version is much faster paced but the film version is still good to listen to as well. The characters all argue about whose fault the whole mess is. First and foremost, Jack is to blame for stealing from the giants and killing the husband. The Baker is responsible for giving Jack the beans that led him to climb up the beanstalk in the first place. The Witch is likewise the reason the Baker had to trade the beans to get the cow. She also takes the time to blame his father for stealing from her in the past. Elsewhere Cinderella is to blame for throwing away the bean that caused the second beanstalk to grow, allowing the giantess to climb down and seek revenge. And Red Riding Hood is the one who dared Jack to go up the beanstalk a third time, which is when the giant ended up killed. The four of them come to the conclusion that it’s the Witch’s fault for having grown the garden with the magic beans at all.

The Witch is disgusted with them, chewing them out for focusing on who to blame rather than actually trying to solve the problem. She does so via “The Last Midnight” – the only song in the musical I don’t like. Nonetheless Meryl Streep belts it out of the park, which she did live on set. She commits suicide by tossing the beans from her garden onto the ground, getting herself swallowed up by the tar pit. It’s sadly left unexplained exactly how this kills her in the film. It’s sort of supposed to be a call back to her line about how her mother would kill her if she lost any of the beans. Some versions have her mother’s hand appear from the ground to drag her under. But anyway we’ve got one dead witch and a giantess still hungry for blood. What’s more is that this prompts the Baker to really say ‘screw it’ and walk off. Okay, I think leaving your new born son with a woman you’ve known for only a couple of hours is probably a new standard for deadbeat fathers.

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The Baker gets confronted by an apparition of his father. This is another thing that was changed from the original stage musical. Said character – titled the ‘Mysterious Man’ – appears at various points to help the Baker and his wife get items for the spell, only to be killed when the curse is broken. It’s then revealed that he’s the Baker’s father. The film gives most of his lines or actions to the Witch, with his only appearance being this scene and a flashback in the prologue. However he uses his screen time wisely; by advising his son not to make the same mistakes he did. Sure enough he returns to the group with a plan. They’ll use Jack as bait to lure the giantess to the tar pit. Cinderella talks to her bird friends and asks them to help distract her. Red seems surprised by the idea of being able to talk to birds.

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Which of course is the *really* ridiculous thing around here.

Cindy’s birds also apparently tell her of the Prince’s little moment with the Baker’s wife. It’s implied that she decides not to tell him about his wife cheating on him to spare his feelings. She then finds the Prince and breaks it off with him. This is again another scene that the film plays a little differently to the original. With the original being much more satirical, the Prince is even more of a dickhead – so Cindy pretty much tells him to go fuck himself. They make a point of stressing that the Prince is a complete ass. And by the end he appears with Sleeping Beauty, having clearly learned nothing. Here however, the Prince is actually played a little more sympathetically. The way Chris Pine plays him suggests that he genuinely does love Cinderella, and was happy to be married to her. This goes back to the above mentioned theme of people being flawed. The Prince was never raised to be anything other than a charming womaniser, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have his good qualities. Both he and Cinderella seem genuinely sad that their marriage is over. So while the original implied that the Prince is going to remain a lech, the film opts for a more hopeful fate. Perhaps he’ll learn from this after all.

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Speaking of learning, as they prepare to kill the giantess, the two adults have to teach the two children something. First of all, Jack is not happy to hear that his mother was killed by the Steward – and swears revenge. Red likewise is troubled by the fact that they’re about to kill somebody – asking if they should show forgiveness. This leads into “No One Is Alone”, probably the best and most haunting song in the musical. This caps off the theme of people being flawed; actions aren’t black or white, good or bad. Each of the characters is responsible for the mess in some way. There are no quick fixes or magical solutions – and such neat, happy endings aren’t always possible. All actions have consequences. Showing forgiveness to the giantess unfortunately won’t stop the destruction she’s causing. She unfortunately has to be killed to save everyone else – even if she’s just as much a victim as anyone. And getting revenge on the Steward won’t bring Jack’s mother back. People can’t be punished for their mistakes; they can only learn from them. And more hopefully, although people will sometimes leave you, you still won’t be alone.

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The Giantess interrupts this tender moment and falls into their trap, walking into the tar pit. The birds distract her, while Jack knocks her dead with his slingshot. Although the threat to the kingdom is resolved, that leaves two children without homes and without parents. Red sort of decides that they’ll move in with the Baker. He agrees and they offer to let Cinderella come too. She’s happy with that arrangement, joking that she sometimes actually enjoys cleaning. And it’s sort of unanimously agreed that she and the Baker will become a couple eventually – both of them moving on from their respective partners. The chemistry that we see between James Corden and Anna Kendrick in their brief scenes do seem to hint at this. There’s time for one last song, where the ghost of the Baker’s wife comforts him and assures him that he can be a good father – and The Witch sings “Children Will Listen”, which reinforces two lessons: the first is that what you wish isn’t always what you want. The second is that all actions have consequences. Thus we get a bittersweet ending instead of a happily ever after, as the Baker decides to narrate the story of how they all came to be there to his son.

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Before we go, I should also mention that little plot hole about the Baker somehow knowing that Rapunzel is his sister. Since Rapunzel survives in the film, it does leave things open for her and the Baker to find each other eventually. There are other things in the narration that he shouldn’t know – such as the Witch blinding the Prince, Cinderella finding tar on the palace stairs and Red getting manipulated by the Wolf. So that could suggest the narration we hear is coming from much later, when he’s had time to get the rest of the story from everyone else. Presumably that includes Rapunzel and her Prince.

As with most adaptations of things with a fiercely passionate fanbase, Into The Woods got a mixed reception. Some fans thought it was a fitting adaptation, while others felt it wasn’t faithful enough. On the flip side, it attracted some new fans and also put off others who weren’t familiar with the original. The biggest thing that gets debated is softening a lot of the darker parts in Act II. Obviously Rapunzel surviving completely changes the Witch’s arc. Likewise the deaths of Jack’s mother and the Baker’s wife are toned down, not to mention completely changing the character of Rapunzel’s Prince. Speaking as someone who wasn’t familiar with the original, I don’t personally think the majority of changes hurt the film. I can understand why they were made. Notably some things were too dark for a film that was already pretty dark for Disney. And I can also understand changing a few things just for the sake of making it different from the stage version. To me, the spirit of the original is still intact. The messages and morals of what happens after the happy ending, and fairy tale characters having to face the consequences of their actions, are still done very well. Adding this up to some incredible music, performed by some equally incredible cast members, and you’ve got a very enjoyable film musical.

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What’s that? You wish for some grades, do you?

*Story? A very good idea, deconstructing a lot of fairy tale tropes much better than movies like Maleficent attempted to. Some story changes did hurt the overall narrative but not enough to bring the movie down for me. A-

*Characters? Again, a good way of playing around with the traditional fairy tale roles. Cinderella got probably the best treatment and I really enjoyed her arc. The shades of grey in everyone make for a very profound story. A

*Performances? A truly stellar cast who step into their roles flawlessly. James Corden and Emily Blunt are fantastic as our lead couple, with the two child actors coming close to stealing their thunder. The stars – Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, Tracey Ullman and even Johnny Depp – all commanded the screen. The rest of the supporting cast were likewise quite solid – especially Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince. A+

*Visuals? Rob Marshall knows how to make a simple forest look cool and interesting. Great use of blue lighting in the night scenes. Some nice costume designs for Cinderella’s ball gown, The Witch’s dress, The Wolf’s…thing and all the rest. B+

*Special Effects? The CGI for the birds and the beanstalk is rather obvious and detracts from the movie a little. Other effects such as the Giantess and the Witch’s death hold up much better. B-

*Anything Else? Some flawless music helps offset the bad transition between Acts I and II. C+

Please put the children to bed in advance, as my next film is Watership Down.

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