Into the Woods: I wish...
I grew up with musicals, but I didn't grow up with Into the Woods. I came upon it later, a few years into my study on fairytales, which may have been a better time to get into it anyway. The musical is right up my alley, deconstructing the modern connotations we have with fairytales, their characters, and their happily-ever-afters. I love fairytales, I love reading them and I enjoy them at face value, but I also love tearing them apart, thinking about what they mean both to me and to the audience in general, what the author(s) meant and what these stories reveal about the cultures and the tellers of these tales. Fairytale deconstructions have become more and more popular: re-tellings from the points of view of villainesses, feminist authors re-telling old stories showcasing the edits made by male authors in the last few centuries, even Disney making sequels to their fairytale movies in order to either continue the story, expand on it, or flesh out antagonists.
I was excited when I first heard about Once Upon a Time, I was so excited. I expected a whole universe filled with fairytale deconstructions, I was excited for the opportunities to really explore characters the way you get time to in TV shows, and I expected nuanced stories weaving these fairytale characters together sympathetically and fascinatingly. You can tell me if it's changed, but when I bailed after season 2, all we'd gotten was a re-drawn caricature of each character as they appeared in their original Disney forms, a lecture on the unshakable importance of natural motherhood over adopted families, and everyone's stories funneling into The Rumpelstiltskin Man-Pain Hour.
This is why I was absolutely terrified of Disney's Into the Woods. Disney had proven with Once Upon a Time that they didn't care for alternate incarnations of fairytale characters, and the characters of Into the Woods are not at all Disney's versions of those characters. I was so worried Disney would try to shoe-horn their own characters in where they didn't belong, which was looking very, very possible (for some reason I can't find it now, but one of those official Disney blogs put out a post attempting to compare the Disney versions to their Into the Woods counterparts, despite Disney's Cinderella being based on Perrault's Cendrillon and Into the Woods using the Grimms' Aschenputtel, among other such gems as attempting to compare a baker in the background from Beauty and the Beast to the Baker from Into the Woods). My fervent prayer for this movie was, "Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck."
And you know? It didn't suck. It turns out Disney can still surprise me pleasantly.
(Spoilers from here on!)
Let's start with the good: the casting was wonderful. I've actually only seen James Corden in one Doctor Who episode previously, but I'm definitely going to need to look up more of his work because he is absolutely charming. Emily Blunt is delightful, Anna Kendrick is fantastic, Chris Pine is at his most Shatner and it really works quite well, Lilla Crawford is phenomenal, and Daniel Huttlestone does an excellent job with a truly difficult role to sing. Meryl Streep is, of course, fabulous, but I have some things about the Witch I will discuss later in this post. The biggest worry I had, honestly, was Johnny Depp as the Wolf. I still maintain that they should have kept the musical's tradition of Cinderella's Prince also playing the part of the Wolf, which I will return to in a moment, but Johnny Depp was actually not terrible. The costuming was all wrong and completely out-of-place, but I'm glad they kept the terrifying predatory creepiness the Wolf embodies; I was truly worried that Disney would try to gloss over it, but he was fully as unnerving as he ought to have been.
The first act was overall well done. Obviously what everyone is talking about is "Agony," which was a stellar performance. Everything was acted and sung well by everyone, and the story changes in the first act were minimal. The second act, however, was much more disappointing, though it didn't ruin the whole movie for me as it seems to have done for many people. Like I said, my expectations were so low, having them even mostly surpassed came off to me as a positive.
My first problem was, as I briefly mentioned before, with the Wolf not being played by Cinderella's Prince. This tradition from the stage is not just a casting gag, but truly a part of the story. Having already seen and dealt with the Wolf, seeing him again as Cinderella's Prince gives us the first inkling that the Prince may not be so wonderful and charming as he appears, which is the idea that the second act fully develops (the happily-ever-afters we dream of not being all we thought they would be). Chris Pine would've done a wonderful job as the Wolf - especially during "Any Moment" he seemed wolfish, predatory, and terrifying, which, had he also played the Wolf, would have made the story just that much fuller.
And before we leave the Wolf, I have to say again that the costuming was just so bad. The rest of the film's costumes were lovely, but the Wolf was so singularly out-of-place that it seems to be an attempt to "other" him, which has implications I don't like. The Wolf is not an aberration, nor something unlike anything else in this fairytale world. He is very much of this world, he is absolutely a part of it, a terrible part of it but that is, again, the entire point; to imply that the Wolf is something out-of-the-ordinary for this world does not take into account what this story is about and what it intends to say. So not only is the costume just annoying and tacky, it does a disservice to the story.
Cutting the princes' second dalliances was another misstep. I'm surprised Disney didn't jump at the chance to connect more of their characters, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in this case, into this project (~synergy~). But then, it isn't like the princesses have much if any stage time in the musical, and their presence, while it would've been cool, isn't really the issue; it is another huge chunk of what this story is about and what it intends to say that is now missing from the film. Rapunzel's Prince in the film comes off as an actual Prince Charming, saving her from her evil stepmother. That's the Disney sort of ending that Into the Woods is completely not about. Not only that, but Cinderella's Prince's infidelity with the Baker's Wife is then our first and only example of the Prince's misbehavior, when we should've had not only the implications from his portraying the Wolf, but also the "Agony (Reprise)" revelations that both princes are only in it for the chase, for the idea of their perfect princess, not for the actual person she is. Cinderella breaking up with the Prince holds less weight when all she's going on is the Baker's word that the Prince was probably cheating on her. Sure, he says he "was raised to be charming, not sincere," but in the musical we were shown that, not merely told.
I think the film's biggest failure is Rapunzel and the Witch. Without Rapunzel's death, the Witch's breakdown seems random and pointless. The Witch in the film doesn't snap so much as...become listless. "Lament" just seemed so spineless from a character who should have so much verve. The Witch's building anger is what culminates in "Last Midnight," but in the film she was just kind of blank until she completely lost it at the end of "Last Midnight," which makes sense in the musical but in the film it just seemed to be without a cause. And the Witch is such a driving force in the entire story, to have her fizzle out like that is such, such a disappointment.
Unfortunately, act two in the film really destroyed most of the hope and optimism that act one gave me. That said, I still enjoyed the movie quite a lot. But I understand and agree with so much of the criticism out there - even people unfamiliar with the play picked up on the weirdness of the Witch's act two performance. It could have been so much worse, but it also could've been better. And honestly, that is more than I thought I would be able to say about this film.