As I was walking out of a preview screening of Disney’s Into the Woods, a middle-aged woman behind me said to her companion, in confusion, “Who is that movie supposed to be for?”
Her question was then answered directly in front of us, as two teenagers wearing t-shirts from their high school production of the Broadway musical that served as the movie’s basis ran into each other and screamed. “THEY CHANGED SO MUCH, BUT…” “I KNOW! AIEEE!” The two then locked arms and began singing one of the witch’s songs as they marched into the parking lot.
Theater kids aside, the woman’s rhetorical question was on point. This isn’t a movie for kids, yet it airbrushes the aspects of its source material that speak to adults on an adult level.
The 1986 musical—with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine—was inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological text The Uses of Enchantment, which argues that fairy tales draw their universal appeal from the way they dramatize deep subconscious themes and conflicts in our lives. The story interweaves stories from well-known fairy tales (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk), first combining them and then inverting them, with the characters discovering that “happily ever after” is a journey rather than a destination.
Disney is accustomed to presenting the Disney version of this, in which fairy tales become simple parables about self-confidence or empathy. The Bruno Bettelheim—and Stephen Sondheim—version of this involves much more complex ideas involving self-knowledge, maturity, and sex.
Lots of sex, actually, and director Rob Marshall’s PG-rated film just about gives itself a hernia trying to navigate all Sondheim’s allusions and entendres without provoking awkward questions from any of the grade-schoolers to whom the film’s producers obviously want to sell tickets. That’s no simple matter, since playful ribaldry is one of Sondheim’s quintessential calling cards.
Take, for example, the song “I Know Things Now,” in which Little Red Riding Hood recalls her encounter with the wolf who seduced her away from the straight-and-narrow path. What’s going on here according to Bettelheim is Freud 101, and on stage, Red Riding Hood is typically played by an adolescent or adult woman who could well be expected to have stirrings in her loins. On screen, the character is played by Lilla Crawford, who was a plucky 12 years old during filming. That puts her and a 50-year-old Johnny Depp (as the wolf) in Dolores-Humbert territory, and this movie is ABSOLUTELY NOT GOING TO GO THERE, so when Little Red sings about having been strangely “excited” by her meeting with the wolf, it makes zero sense.
Other numbers aren’t made as awkward-slash-creepy by the Disney treatment—they’re just boring, because they’re written crooked and played straight. This is especially true of the film’s second half, which concerns marital infidelity. That’s a heavy topic no matter how sprightly the songs are; Sondheim knows that, but Disney tries not to. For all the best efforts of the actors (unnamed to avoid spoilers), a late-in-the-game extramarital seduction scene is sanitized virtually into nonexistence. Sondheim’s lines are the same, but everything about Marshall’s direction of the scene wants to make us think the dude just wants a few smacks on the lips. Sorry, but the scene only works if you understand that the two characters want to have a hot fuck in the woods because they are adults and adults sometimes have sex—even with people they aren’t married to—and that. Is. What. This. Song. Is. About.
That said, it’s easy to understand why the producers thought this material would make for a dandy family film, and that Marshall (an Oscar-winner for Chicago) would be the right guy to helm it. The movie is on its surest footing in the early scenes, when the characters are being introduced and their lives begin to intersect. Until her story arc wanders off the path—literally and otherwise—Crawford’s deadpan Little Red is a hoot. James Corden and Emily Blunt turn the story of the Baker and his wife into a ye olde Mad About You, and it need not be said that Meryl Streep makes the most of her role as the Witch. Marshall’s fluid camera work hops easily from tale to tale, and we settle in for a pleasant light comedy. Then we go into the woods…and into the weeds, never to emerge.
Who is this movie for? Well, it’s actually for a lot of people: it’s for those theater kids I mentioned above. It’s for obsessive film nerds who will recut it to give it a more satisfying ending and heightened dramatic frisson. It’s for today’s 12-year-olds—but not today, in 15 years when they’ll get stoned and watch midnight screenings and laugh about how much it confused them back in 2014. As for the rest of you, if you take my advice you’ll just watch the princes’ duet on YouTube and leave it at that.