When I first walked into my local theater to see Into the Woods, I was expecting nothing more than another passively enjoyable fairy tale retold with a dark edge to it. What I got, while not drastically different from my expectations, was something a lot more clever and engaging than I had imagined, although it’s still not without its flaws.
It’s true that Into the Woods takes classic fairy tales and retells them with an edgier tone, but it does so in a way that feels markedly different from anything else I’ve seen from the genre. The world of Into the Woods felt genuinely lived-in, which made accepting the many fantastical elements of the story easy to grasp and understand, which is something many modern fairy takes seem to struggle with capturing.
The story starts off by introducing the audience to a myriad of different characters who are each living their own lives yet wishing for something better. There’s the humble Baker and his wife, who want nothing more than to have a child; Jack the farm boy, who struggles to please a casually abusive mother; Little Red, who has some serious trust and commitment issues; and Cinderella, the iconic princess-to-be who lives as an indentured servant to her viciously cruel mother-in-law.
Through a series of musical numbers and mishaps, we follow an ever rotating cast of characters as they enter into a mystical, daunting forest in search of their deepest desires. However, it doesn’t take long for things to quickly take a turn for the worse, as they each discover that the path to their dreams may not be as sweet as they had imagined.
I will avoid going into the details of the plot, as seeing it take the familiar and twist it into something original was one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie, but the characters are more or less the same as you remember them. While their basic personalities remain intact, the characters we see here are more complicated and layered, as they quickly and effectively shed past cliches in favor of adopting new complexities.
Into the Woods greatest strength is its spectacular ensemble cast, and it’s thanks to them that the movie is able to overcome its many shortcomings. With the likes of Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick all giving effortlessly impressive performances, it becomes very easy to look past some lackluster pacing in favor of just watching their unique character arcs unravel.
One of the most pleasant surprises, however, was just how enjoyable the two relative newcomers were. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone were both fantastic as Little Red and Jack respectively, and they were able to easily hold their own while working alongside a cast full of incredibly talented industry veterans.
However, I was left disappointed by the way the story itself unfolded. While it went to some interesting places, and gave the characters some compelling development to work with, it was needlessly erratic in its pacing and frequently became hard to follow the longer it went on.
With so many characters constantly battling for attention, the plot jumped around with every other scene and became harder and harder to follow. When the story focused on the Baker and his wife, and the many clever ways they crossed paths with the other characters, things were fine. But when the story would dedicate entire scenes to mostly pointless ancillary characters, the plot struggled to stay on track.
Thankfully, the many musical numbers were so well orchestrated and performed that they were able to breath life back into the story whenever it hit a lull. The actors were all fantastic in the songs, with the real standouts being Lilla Crawford and Emily Blunt in my opinion, and the group performances were easily some of the most memorable moments of the movie.
The movie was also surprisingly funny, which helped to balance out some of the darker elements were frequently delved into. A duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, who play two equally charming and overly dramatic princes, was a real highlight, as the two of them argued over who had to endure the worst agony in their respective romantic relationships in a hysterical musical number that had my entire theater laughing.
Unfortunately, the final act fell flat for me. While I enjoyed seeing the story tackle what happens after the characters have a typical “happily ever after,” the climax was so rushed that it lost a lot of the suspense and intrigue that the rest of the story had been able to carry so well. On top of that, the ending was wrapped up far too neatly and abruptly, leaving me more frustrated than anything else.
There were still some strong moments near the end, especially for Emily Blunt’s character, but ultimately I was left unsatisfied by the time the credits started rolling. Some of this is likely the side effect of adapting a Broadway play into a feature film, but with such a compelling cast of characters to work with, it was disappointing to see their story wrapped up so suddenly.
Still, I enjoyed Into the Woods a lot more than I expected to, and have been humming the theme song to myself almost every day since I first watched it. It has its problems, chief among them the sporadic pacing and subpar ending, but with such a great, well rounded cast of characters, there’s still a lot to enjoy here if you can keep an open mind.