Into the Woods

Movie Information

The Story: Musical revisionist take on classic fairy tales. The Lowdown: It ought to be more of an event than it is, but this film version of the Stephen Sondheim show is good and ought to please the fans.
Genre: Musical
Director: Rob Marshall
Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, Johnny Depp
Rated: PG



This year we get two musicals for the Christmas season — with this, Rob Marshall’s film of Into the Woods, being far and away the more anticipated and certainly more respectable — not to mention boasting an all-star cast. And the results are fine, though rarely inspired. Even bearing in mind that Into the Woods isn’t one of my favorite scores (a lot of it sounds like recycled Sweeney Todd to me), I think the reason for the film not being more than just good has less to do with the material than it has to do with the direction. I’ve seen every theatrical feature Marshall has made and have liked each of them — yes, even Nine (2009) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2011) — while they were on-screen. And then they simply evaporated from my mind — except for Chicago (2002), which is not in its favor. I suspect this will suffer the same fate. I also suspect that it will delight fans of the show because it takes few liberties, and it will do the same for fans of the performers — except Johnny Depp admirers hoping for more than his five minutes of screen time. (Granted, Johnny Depp as a pedophilic wolf in a zoot suit is a sight to behold.)




Those who were worried about early claims that the film version would be Disneyfied out of recognition can rest easy — more or less. The softenings — and they exist — are largely insignificant, though I think they do conspire to make the ending feel rushed and perfunctory. Even so, this is still pretty dark stuff, and despite its PG rating it isn’t really aimed at children. Whether it is suitable for them depends entirely on the child. Since the greater point of this material is about the loss of innocence and the debunking of the happily-ever-after mindset, a certain degree of worldliness is perhaps required.




If you don’t know, the story takes several well-known fairy tales and has them cross paths — even collide with each other — in the woods of the title. (In some ways, the dichotomy of the fairy tale town and the magical — if unsafe — woods evokes something of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) As noted, this is all intended as a debunking of the tales — almost a dark spoof of them — and that really wasn’t all that daring in 1986 when the show first appeared, and it’s even less so now in our postmodern snarky world. It’s not novelty that makes the concept work, but the slightly unsettling darker undercurrent that’s always present that comes to the forefront in the latter parts of the story. That there is also a degree of what feels like genuine magic in the mix certainly doesn’t hurt.




The film — especially as a version of the play — has much to recommend it. The very fact that a great deal of it takes place in real — or soundstage — settings keeps it anchored and not awash in cartoonish CGI. Even a number of the effects are practical or basic cinematic sleight of hand, which is refreshing. That such things as grandma’s house seem pretty artificial matters less than the fact that you feel like you could touch it. There is, however, a downside to this. All too often the film seems too much like canned theater — a mere recording of a stage event. The line between theatrical and stagey is a thin one, and Marshall seems unable to tell where it is.




Even so, it’s a solid work, and the performers are generally excellent — though I personally think two singing children is pushing it. If I had to single out a performance, I’d probably have to go with the obvious choice — Meryl Streep’s witch, and I am not one who believes Streep can do no wrong. It’s not just that she would make the whole thing worth the price of the ticket. It’s also the realization that when she takes her final leave all the air goes out of the movie, and you’re just waiting for it to wrap up the story. Should you see it? If you like musicals, yes. If you like this particular musical, most definitely. Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucatcher.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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34 thoughts on “Into the Woods

  1. Sally Sefton

    Perhaps the point of the original play was to debunk these particular fairy tales, but more profoundly, to put to rest the notion that happy endings in life as well as these fairy tales simply aren’t realistic. When it was created in the late 80’s audiences saw it as a ripping apart of the fabric of the stories that saw us through childhood. In the theater community, it was seen as a refreshing departure from some of the more tiresome “love triumphs in the end” musicals and actors especially loved performing these roles because of the complexity of the characters and the richness of the score . This piece may not translate as well to the screen as CHICAGO, but for me it
    was magical and I learned something new from this production. I learned that the witch is infinitely more lovable than anyone else on that screen. Not because of Meryl, but because we all understand how love can bring out the best and the worst in us.

    • Ken Hanke

      It still seems to me that debunking “happy ever after” in 1986 is pretty late in the day to be in and of itself groundbreaking. Even within the confines of musical theatre — of which my knowledge is admittedly spotty post-Cole Porter — the lack of a happy ending wasn’t unique by then, e.g., Camelot, Sweeney Todd even the resurrection-free Jesus Christ Superstar, if you will. It’s not theatre, but Stan Freberg had made mock of fairy tales before this, as had the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons (arguably, a better place to plant the seeds of skepticism in the myth). I’m not saying the show doesn’t debunk the concept — that’s the whole point of the second section of it. I just don’t see it as revolutionary in popular culture by that time. (Of course, in Reagan’s 1980s, a case could be made that myth was creeping back in.)

      I don’t know if it makes a better film than Chicago, but I’d far rather see this. Chicago is a film I like less with each passing year and one I find hard to sit through now. Take out the opening and Queen Latifah’s number and there’s not much there for me. In fact, that puppet number, which I first just found peculiar, I now find plain gross. How this will wear over the years remains an unknown factor, of course. I’m at a disadvantage because I’m not drawn to the music, so it probably isn’t something I’ll revisit much, and I already find the filmmaking more workmanlike than inspired.

      The Witch is really the only character who is fully formed. The others are more simply drawn and most of them aren’t even especially likable, let alone lovable.

      • Sally Sefton

        “It still seems to me that debunking “happy ever after” in 1986 is pretty late in the day to be in and of itself groundbreaking. Even within the confines of musical theatre — of which my knowledge is admittedly spotty post-Cole Porter — the lack of a happy ending wasn’t unique by then, e.g., Camelot, Sweeney Todd even the resurrection-free Jesus Christ Superstar, ”

        I was wrong to simplify the script by just talking about happy endings. It is much more than that. By the end of Act I, yes everyone’s wishes have come true: Cinderella gets her prince, Jack gets the giant’s harp, the baker and his wife get a child, and so on. In Act II, it all falls to apart. A second giant appears and indiscriminately kills anyone in her path. The princes are cheaters. The couple deteriorates to blaming and bickering. The characters question their original wishes and what they stole and whom they sold out to fulfill them. So it isn’t the lack of a happy ending that sets this apart. Michael Schulman of The New Yorker wrote this about Sondheim and I agree with him. “What I learned from “Into the Woods,” most of all, was ambivalence. It’s in every song, undermining prepackaged morals. (“Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” Little Red sings to herself. “And a little bit not.”) No one in musical theatre does ambivalence like Sondheim, and usually no one tells you what it is until after you’ve experienced it. Cinderella’s hemming and hawing on the palace steps is worlds away from “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” from Disney’s cartoon version. What if your heart doesn’t have a goddam clue?” So my original statement about debunking happy endings was a bit more complex than I originally expressed.

        I also want to clarify my comment about “lovable” characters. I didn’t really define them as lovable. But they are certainly more complex than the one dimensional fairy tale characters. “On the Steps of the Palace,” Cinderella’s monologue deciding what to do at the moment she decides to leave behind the shoe:

        You think, what do you want?
        You think, make a decision.
        Why not stay and be caught?
        You think, well, it’s a thought,
        What would be his response?
        But then what if he knew
        Who you were when you know
        That you’re not what he thinks
        That he wants?

        And then what if you are?

        Likable? who cares? He brings up questions and challenges the black and whiteness of most fairy tales.

        I am not writing these tiresome pieces to convince you or anyone. I am writing just to share some ideas. I come from a theater background. Yours is obviously film. I know many performers who would love to play any one of these characters. And really gifted actor/singers adore Sondheim for the challenge he provides musically and the character possibilities he provides in his lyrics.

        • Ken Hanke

          I’m not really debating what you’re saying, though I will point out that it isn’t Sondheim I’m accusing of being unlikable. Rather, I’m remarking on the characters in the play. I’m mostly saying that you’re finding an element of freshness in subverting the fairy tales that doesn’t seem all that startling to me. Sure, this is worlds away from the Disney film of Cinderella — and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical — but it’s also decades away from them. Time and pop culture had moved on, too. And the distrust of “happily ever after” dates back even further than those 1950s incarnations. For instance, Preston Sturges starts his 1942 film The Palm Beach Story with a wedding playing under the credits and ends it with the oncreen title, “And they lived happily ever after,” followed by another title, “Or did they?” before getting down to the what happened after “happily ever after.” For that matter, the “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it” idea is so shrouded in antiquity that its exact origins are unknown.

          Of course, if we’re honest, none of this has actually banished “happily ever after.” It’s still around and it still holds an appeal — not as a steady diet, mind you, and not always in strictest fairy tale form (which in itself is often sanitized from the original tales as to be unrecognizable). I don’t even think that it’s necessarily a bad thing. All drama has a finite structure. What happens after the book ends, the curtain falls, or the final fade-out remains unexplored territory. That is perhaps as it should be.

          None of this is a criticism of Sondheim or Into the Woods, merely my thoughts on why, for me, it isn’t quite as daring — thematically — as you see it.

  2. This movies was not even close to being good the scripts were sad at best. I was sad to see Johnny Depp as a pedophile half/wolf in a zoot suit, the bakers wife cheating on him with Cinderella’s Prince goes against the very nature of the fairy tales we have all come to love. The music was horrible. The sister cutting off there toes and heels, really? Is that what Disney calls kid friendly these days? I am very disappointed and I bet Walt Disney is turning over in his grave as we speak. If I was to sum up this movie? It would be a Failed attempt of Disney meets Tim Burton and Sweeney Todd .

    • Ken Hanke

      I’m guessing you know little about the 1986 musical play this comes from?

    • Sally Sefton

      The interesting part of this play is that it is a rebuke of most of what DISNEY has been about. It is part satire, part debunking the traditional happy ending. It really isn’t for kids. It is for adults who have suffered from the idea that 1) “someday our prince wil come ” 2) The shallow notion that falling in love with physical beauty and expecting it to last a lifetime never turns out well 3) Love can make us do both heroic and not so heroic things.

      I guess it sounds like I am defending the play…which…I guess I am. But the target audience is really not kids. It is aimed at disillusioned adults. Like me.

  3. Dont really care that it was a play no offence, But I do care Disney (Kid Based) productions picked it up!
    As far as the play itself, I’m surprised there are people out even interested in this Butcher of Walt Disney creations. To me this is nothing more the a slap in Walt Disney’s face and an attempt to defile his works. Who says dreams can’t come true and that there are not people out there that are pure of heart?

    • Ken Hanke

      Disney hasn’t been specifically “kid based” in some considerable time. Disney himself said he didn’t make children’s movies, but family movies. Anyway, this isn’t a “Butcher of Walt Disney creations.” These stories all predate the Disney cartoons made from them. As for people interested…well, so far over $105 million worth of them have been. I’m not saying that proves anything other than the existence of interested people. Granted, I suspect most of them went with some idea of what they were getting into.

  4. Well this is no family movie in any form and in my eyes its nothing more then Smut! (To captivate our varied and worldwide audience of all ages, the nature and treatment of the fairy tale, the legend, the myth have to be elementary, simple. Good and evil, the antagonists of all great drama in some guise, must be believably personalized. The moral ideals common to all humanity must be upheld. The victories must not be too easy. Strife to test valor is still and will always be the basic ingredient of the animated tale, as of all screen entertainments.” —Walt Disney) $105 million wasted.

    • Ken Hanke

      “Nothing more then [sic] Smut,” huh. Hyperbole much?

    • Ken Hanke

      Well, I obviously don’t agree with it. Liking it (your opinion) doesn’t really enter into it. But calling a PG rated film “smut” seems a pretty big stretch.

  5. your idea of Disney and my idea of Disney are all together different and yes in short it is nothing more then the perversion of all the Disney classics i have grown up with. That being said you can drop the “Im better then you know it all attitude” and stop judging my opinion, Because I don’t care how you feel the movie was from a play some sick and twisted moron changed up because he couldn’t come up with something original and on his own or rather or not your definition of smut is the same as mine. I thought the movie/play was garbage the acting/script sucked no moral and no consequences to their actions This movie was sold out on Christmas day with family’s all over the nation only to view this garbage of a film, I wonder how many Moms and Dads took their kids to this thinking it was in good taste? How many kids sat through this Flop only to find some sick directors take on a PG film promoted for the young but made for Adults ? You call me Hyperbolic? No im just looking at the big picture. The morality, the acting, the direction of this film. Its like a Cigarette Commercial for kids. Hey I know lets make a movie about how suicide is ok if things get to tough for us next? we’ll call it Romeo and Juliet go into the woods and have Disney do a take on it as well !

    • Ken Hanke

      It’s “better than you,” not “then you.” Why should I stop judging your opinion when all you’re doing is judging mine — in between outbursts of startling prudishness. And I have nothing further to say to you.

  6. I have not judged you at all, but I can if you’d like me too? Didn’t see me calling you an idiot for sticking up for his film. Or ripped on your profile just because you look like a man ape! Have I even called you out of your name Ken. You started talking down on me when I voiced my opinion on this lame duck! Its more then just a twisted directors take on classic I have known sense the 1970’s. Its like remaking True Grit, sure Jeff Bridges is a great actor but they have just stole the spot light from a great actor named John Wayne. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Gene Wilder vs Johnny Depp the movie was ruined. The real skinny is why can’t they come up with their own great stuff instead of stealing the spot light of already great movies. I’m not ripping on you. I just dont understand what you could ever see in the destruction of these wonderful classics that have stood the test of time. Its a dam shame.

    • Ken Hanke

      You are wandering into — no, you’ve crossed over into — the area of personal attack. The next such outburst will be deleted. I have not at any point judged you, merely your opinion and your way of expressing it. There is a difference.

      • Sally Sefton

        Smut? Is there an X rated version that is available only behind the counter at truck stops? .Your outrage is so over the top on this that I think you are partially mad at yourself for not doing your homework before taking your kids to see this film. First It is rated PG. In case you aren’t familiar with the rating system, here is the definition. “A PG-rated film may not be suitable for children. The MPAA says a PG-rated should be checked out by parents before allowing younger children to see the movie. There could be some profanity, some violence, or brief nudity, however there will not be any drug use in a PG film. If you look at the trailer from INTO THE WOODS there are clear indications that this isn’t a rosy Disney cartoon.
        Cinderella:” all will come to a happy end”
        The Witch….”Not always”
        This is a direct quote from the trailer.

        As parents we have to do our homework before we take impressionable children into a theater. Years ago I took my daughter to Disney’s MULAN and she ran screaming out of the theater at one point. A year later we saw Disney’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME at a friend’s house and she was inconsolable within the first three minutes because of yet another violent death of a mother. I guess my point is that there are challenging moments even in Disney cartoons that can be upsetting to kids. INTO THE WOODS ( unlike the Disney movies I just mentioned) was not geared especially for children. It is a cautionary tale for all of us in which we learn that everything is not a neat little package. It is about parents and children and how love makes us do very strange, dark, and sometimes wonderful things. And if you find yourself in a movie that is frightening your kids, instead of going after a critic who wasn’t horrified by the same thing that horrified you, just take your children out of the theater and spend your time writing letters to Disney or whoever duped you into bringing them in there in the first place.

  7. If your judging my opinion its an attack on me and how I feel and its they way your saying your point. Throw your weight around and delete me it just proves my point. I never attacked you either just your opinion on the movies as well and really i never even addressed your views i simply stated how i felt about he movie like it or not. (Than) you felt the need to start telling me I’m Hyperbolic due to my views? Oh my bad thought hat was a direct attack on me. If you dont like my views fine! But dont rebuttal me if you not looking to hear more!

  8. Sally it was sold on Christmas made by Disney thought it was a family film I dont have time to research every movie that hits the theaters but some you assume are safer (than) others “have to keep my spelling up to par or the spell checkers will be after me” dont wanna go to spell jail its a rough place :-)

  9. luluthebeast

    Sorry Steve, but while you’re perfectly entitled to your opinions I feel you have crossed the line in your vitriolic answers to Ken. You say they’ve changed the stories from Disney; well you should see how Disney changed the original stories (which would be X-Rated these days if they filmed it. Sleeping Beauty, in one of the very earliest versions of this classic story, published in 1634 by Giambattista Basile as Sun, Moon, and Talia, was a horror story with rape (Sleeping Beauty) and people being burnt to death. You need to calm down, not make it personal and just let us know why you don’t like it and don’t want to take your children.

    • Ben Gilbert

      Many of the earliest versions of the Cinderella story have the stepsisters amputating parts of their feet to fit the slipper.

  10. Andrew Leal

    For the record, “hyperbole” means exaggeration or overstatement (and is a comment on the words, not the person). I’m not sure a person can even be hyperbolic. (At least from the reaction, I think the previous poster may have mistaken it for something else).

    • Ben Gilbert

      My niece is a Disney fan (movies, parks, cruises, trips to Euro-Disney) and this is one of her favorite musicals.

  11. Clearly I am out numbered here and that’s fine. Again I could care less about the story’s before they became Disney Classic’s and as I have stated before the movie was boring, johnny Depp was creepy his and his costume was lacking, The script was just sad and the songs were awful. Now if Disney wasn’t the one backing this i would have not been so angry. this movies should have been PG 13 it isn’t meant for kids, But hey, what do i know right? You guys are the pro’s, I have only been watching them sense 1971, hell Cinderella only came out in 1950 and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs first appeared in (1937) and they have only been seen by generations of impressionable kids like I was back then. Guess my age is showing because i see this for what it really is, One big tangled web of lies being backfired in their faces. No morals, no real plot and a wolf/human stalking and singing Hello little girl.

    • Ken Hanke

      Since 1971, huh? Well, I’ve been watching Disney stuff since 1957 when Old Yeller so traumautized me that I was depressed for days. Yeah, that’s what kids need to see — a movie about another kid who has to shoot his dog. And I was there in 1959 when Sleeping Beauty terrified me so much I hid under the seat. This isn’t to mention that barrel of laughs of seeing Dumbo in re-issue and watching a mother ripped away from her child, or seeing Bambi’s mother shot by hunters when that came around. Really kid friendly stuff that is. I’m also old enough to remember when Disney movies cost 35 cents to see as opposed to 25 cents for everything else. Why? Because ol’ Walt charged higher rental fees on his movies. And that is what Disney is really all about — making money.

  12. Old Yeller: Travis is forced to kill Yeller after the fight with the wolf, because he cannot risk Yeller’s becoming sick and turning on the family. Dumbo: Mrs. Jumbo loses her temper at a group of boys for bullying of her son, so she is locked up and deemed mad. Dumbo is shunned by the other elephants and with no mother to care for him, he is now alone. Timothy Q. Mouse, who feels sympathy for Dumbo and becomes determined to make him happy again, appoints himself as Dumbo’s mentor and protector. Should i go on with the plot of Sleeping Beauty as well? Sorry it scared you guess i understood what was going on in it. Into the woods: Big stars, ear bleeding song, crappy acting and no plot = thrown together to make a profit. I’ll agree with you on that.

  13. Ken Hanke

    This is like trying to comb the hair on an iron donkey. (No, I did not call you a donkey.)

    • Sally Sefton

      Aren’t you being a tad hyperbolic here?

  14. Guess you just don’t have the decency to just respect my view, on that note I said my peace on this tragedy you call a movie. Sorry I ever even posted here. I have better things to do than to be trolled by you, delete my post if you want or im sure you have some more sarcasm for me, but let it be said his movies was an EPIC crap and did not deserve to be anything more then the play it was.

    • Ken Hanke

      You are not being trolled, you are trolling.

      • Ben Gilbert

        He seems to have gone from the movie being perverted smut to it deserves a PG-13 rating.

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