Last weekend, two friends and I went to see Into the Woods. It was Sunday night, cold, the theater was only mildly crowded, and we shared a large popcorn (with free refills!). I had been wanting to see the movie since the first trailers were released, simply because the cast looked incredible, I love musicals, and I love all things Disney. I was expecting a good show and I wasn’t disappointed.
I need to probably say that I really didn’t know a ton about the story before I saw the film. While I participated in musical theater in high school and I love singing and dancing and acting, I don’t necessary obsess over musical theater as some do. I’d never seen the stage show, but I knew people had strong feelings regarding Bernadette Peters playing the witch and how dare the producers cast Meryl Streep instead. I knew the story was darker than what we normally expect when it comes to Disney movies. I knew there’d be a lot of singing and I knew the cast featured some of my favorite actors (Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine) plus some living legends (Streep, Tracy Ulman, Christine Baranski), so though I was anticipating an enjoyable film, I didn’t have many expectations beyond that.
The film kicks off with a musical number – it doesn’t hold anything back. The leads and supporting characters are all right there, up front, their melodies combining and their stories interweaving quite beautifully. The actual look and style of the film is lovely, but dark. The prologue shows the characters in the daytime, but then quickly transitions into the woods and darker locales. The further into the movie, the darker the atmosphere seems to get – matching the events surrounding the characters.
The first half of the movie follows The Baker (James Cordon) and his Wife (Blunt) as they try and collect some rather unusual ingredients for a potion the Witch (Streep) plans on making in 3 days at the Blue Moon. The supporting characters posses these ingredients and are blissfully unaware of their importance as they go about trying to find their happily ever afters. The Baker’s Wife really steals this portion of the film. She’s lovely and subtle and clever and every time she opens her mouth to sing the audience (i.e. me) were surprised by how beautiful a voice she has. I really hope Blunt does more musicals in the future, as her singing voice was my favorite from the film.
My favorite musical number, however, was most definitely “Agony,” sung by Cinderella’s Prince (Pine) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen). It’s the kind of song you can’t get out of your head and I’ve found myself playing it over and over and over on youtube ever since getting home from watching the movie. In fact, I’m listening to it right now as I type. The song, already amazing, gets even better with the visuals from the film. I was listening to the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour’s podcast discussing this film and they mentioned how in the stage version of Into the Woods, there is very little set decoration and the actors are often playing on a bare stage, but the setting in the movie for this song was absolutely brilliant. I don’t want to give it away, because it is incredibly funny and fitting and had the whole audience laughing throughout, so I’ll just say, go and watch it and come back and tell me how much you loved it.
Chris Pine is simply hysterical in this role – best casting award.
The second half of the movie shifts tone slightly drastically, as our cast of characters must now fight a giant who has begun “terrorizing” the countryside. I’ve read in the stage version that there is a intermission in between the two acts, which I’m sure makes the transition seem less jarring, but I do think the movie did the best it could in making it.
The film ends with our characters all learning something about themselves and the nature of others. Cinderella (Kendrick) and the Baker’s “No One is Alone” swan song is hauntingly beautiful (and another one I’ve listened to several times since seeing the movie) and gets a nice reprieve from the Baker’s Wife at the very end.
My biggest complaint with the film is that all of the music shares the same tone and musicality. There are very few tempo changes and no variation in instruments – it’s all winds and strings complimenting the piano (at least, that’s what my untrained ears hear). I’m not sure if this is a trademark of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, but I found myself wishing the songs were more distinguishable from one another.
Final verdict – definitely a movie I’ll buy once it’s on dvd. I’ll probably also buy the soundtrack in the meantime. It makes me want to see the stage version, but I’m glad I saw the movie first, because hopefully that means I’ll be able to love both!