Into the Woods is my kind of musical. The film is terrifically entertaining, cinematically astute, and thematically rich. Into the Woods is one of the most satisfying movie experiences I’ve had all year, both while I was in the theater watching the movie and in the days since as I’ve thought about it (and listened to the soundtrack obsessively).
Adapted from the Stephen Sondheim musical, the film follows a group of fairy tale characters as their paths criss-cross over the course of three days and nights in the forest near their homes. Sondheim’s music and lyrics are clever and catchy, and the cast delivers them with conviction and admirable ability. Relative cinema newcomers Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone (Huttlestone played Gavroche in 2012’s lamentable Les Mis) are especially good bringing Broadway and Royal Theater stage-tuned expressionism, urgency, and lyrical skill to the characters of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, respectively.
Into the Woods is more than a filmed stage production enhanced by quick cuts – like director Rob Marshall’s 2002 Oscar-winner Chicago, which I like, but honestly, that’s what Chicago is. This is a cinematic experience, particularly with regards to the titular woods.
The woods become a real character here instead of merely an agreed-upon setting. Branches impose on almost every frame, complicating the image just as what happens in the woods complicates the characters’ lives. Wide shots establish the vastness of the forest, which mirrors the magnitude of the changes the characters undergo from beginning to end and the unlikelihood the characters will find a way out of their dilemmas. The editing both connects the characters (narratively, emotionally, psychologically) and keeps them separate (relationally). They are clearly near one another but just barely kept apart by the trees.
The film’s story is a riff on the “true story behind the story you think you know” conceit (although Sondheim’s musical predates the current craze by almost two decades), but it’s a riff that dives deeper into the psychologies of these familiar characters and considers why they behave as they do. Most fairy tales are packed with plot-whys—Cinderella runs away from the ball because the stroke of midnight will unweave the spell her fairy godmother wove—but Into the Woods is packed with emotional-whys—Cinderella runs away from the ball because she’s unsure that life with a prince is the life she wants. It’s compelling stuff, because while I’ve never climbed a beanstalk and met a giant in the sky, I do know what it’s like to be caught between a world of adventure “out there” and a world of stability at home, to borrow Jack’s emotional dilemma.
Those woods, of course, are everything. They are the place where innocence, or rather naivety, are lost in favor of a more complex yet mature understanding of the world. Sexuality plays a key role in many of the characters’ arcs. Some are more metaphorical—Red’s and Jack’s comings-of-age—and others are more explicit—the baker and his wife’s relationships are tested by their mutual desire for a child. Sexuality has always been a subtle part of these fairy tales, and it’s only made slightly more explicit here. Sexuality certainly is complicating, whether we’re talking about temptations to infidelity or the expectations parents place on their children.
Coming to grips with sexuality is just an aspect of maturation though, and it’s just an aspect of Into the Woods. The greater issue is awareness of the greater world. New knowledge forces us to make choices about how we are now going to act in light of what we now know. Will we choose selfishly no matter the effect our choices have on anyone else, or will we choose selflessly and consider those around us as we act? The characters in Into the Woods who realize they are not alone, that their choices affect the others, fare the best.
Director Rob Marshall claims he decided to push onward with his desire to make this musical after he listened to President Obama’s speech on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Marshall said he felt the film’s core message—“No one is alone.”—is especially relevant in today’s world. I suppose that’s kind of true, but that message has always been relevant as it is an analgesic version of the Golden Rule. Still, when fear of what’s unknown casts its shadow like so many of Woods’ trees, that becomes an even harder rule to follow as Into the Woods’ characters discover.
More important though than any message or moral the film espouses are the questions it asks. Into the Woods asks what kinds of stories we ought to be telling our children. Ought we to tell them stories where right and wrong are easy to discern, where good guys and girls always win and bad guys and girls always lose, where princes and castles and wealth are always worthwhile pursuits, and where everything ends happily? Or ought we to tell them stories where morality is sometimes ambiguous, where all people are a mix of good and bad and equally deserving of mercy, where wealth and power aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, where “nice isn’t always good,” and where justice may be certain in the end though it might not look like we expect it to look? Into the Woods has a point of view on the matter. I do, too, as, I imagine, you do. How we answer depends on how many wolves, giants, witches, charming princes, and impetuous princesses we’ve encountered and, more importantly perhaps, how our parents have treated us. Did they keep us locked in a tower, or did they encourage us to climb beanstalks? We all go into the woods eventually. Will we be ready? Time will tell.
You might also find these reviews of Into the Woods helpful: