At the start of Into the Woods, gnarled, moonlit branches wreath the familiar Disney logo—that oft-chipper image of a pristine castle and its glittering moat. The tweak, of course, is meant to usher you right where the title suggests, but it doubles as a brooding harbinger of the darkest, ballsiest bit of entertainment released by the Mouse House in some time. Granted, that’s not really saying much, as Disney has rarely been a place to turn for risky business, and purists are bound to be miffed by the relative tempering of sex and violence in this Hollywood take on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Broadway hit. But for those who were reared on live-action fantasy cinema from the 1980s, or the various Grimm fairy tales on which the 1987 musical was based, Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods film feels just radical enough to cleanse the palette, specifically amid Disney’s new trend of serving up toothless self-cannibalizations, from Maleficent to Saving Mr. Banks.
Occasionally laced with innuendo to match, Into the Woods is a veritable orgy of some of your favorite bedtime stories, placing Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) alongside a blue-haired witch (Meryl Streep), two handsome princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), and pint-sized beanstalk-climber Jack (Daniel Huttlestone). Though perfectly harmless for whatever niece or grandchild tags along while you watch Streep dust off her Postcards from the Edge pipes, this PG-rated romp is, refreshingly, less notable for its happily-ever-afters than its oh-no-they-didn’ts. The woods itself isn’t so much a Sleepy Hollow-style horrorfest as a labyrinthine den of desires, where Rapunzel canoodles with her beau, Jack nabs magic beans that’ll summon a giant, Red gets stalked and swallowed by a very pedophile-y Wolf (Johnny Depp), and a baker’s wife (Emily Blunt), while joining her husband (James Corden) on a quest to break the witch’s curse and get pregnant, strays from her path to get all adulterous with Pine’s cheeky, philandering royal.
Again, this is tame stuff when compared to the majority of titillations in popular movies, but in a genre so increasingly bent on shielding young people from anything without a sugary coating, it’s heartening to see characters not only pursue their (sometimes) dubious wants, but also suffer their share of consequences (in grand Grimm fashion, folks are blinded, dismembered, and, in a few cases, even killed—all with a condemning, yet frolicsome, wink). Adapting his own book into a script, Lapine largely finds a satisfying medium between the adult-oriented liberties of theater and the heavy-handed filters of the Disney machine, while Marshall, ever the director to cook up marvelous musical numbers amid a clunky whole, matches the tone with his smattering of showstoppers. Like James Marsden in the somewhat similar once-upon-a-time riff Enchanted, Pine is urged to go full-tilt in mocking his dreamy image, and “Agony,” his pretty-hurts duet with fellow heartbreaker Magnussen, is a campy, queer-eyed highlight, complete with bared chests and high kicks in a waterfall setting.