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Once upon a time, a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) wished for a baby. Enter stage right, with a bang and a puff of smoke, a gnarled old witch (Meryl Streep) who will break the curse on their house and grant their desire—if they bring her four things from the nearby woods.
What things, you ask? Lean in close, and I’ll tell: a cloak as red as blood (Red Riding Hood), a cow as white as milk (Jack and the Beanstalk), a lock of yellow hair (Rapunzel), and a shoe made of gold (Cinderella).
As the baker and his wife begin their journey, three other main characters—Red Riding Hood, Jack, and Cinderella—head into the woods at the same moment, following their traditional storylines. For instance, Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) takes bread to her sick granny, but the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp) soon meets her along the way.
Eventually, as their stories begin to unravel, our heroes band together to defend the woods against a new foe—a giant come to exact revenge on Jack.
On the surface, this film adaptation of a Broadway musical seems like classic Disney. The music is brilliant, capturing the full range of human emotions. And visually, the PG-rated film hearkens back to the wholesome beauty of Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz. Add to that the button-popping scenes (literally) in which Prince Charming and his brother skewer their own romance-novel looks.
Like Snow White’s apple, though, Into the Woods is flawed at its core. For all our heroes turn out to be zeroes, and this includes a nefarious scene in which Prince Charming seduces the baker’s wife. By the end, our characters’ ideals of truth and goodness, right and wrong have all been slain with the giant. In order to find forgiveness and community, they cling to the stories for their “happily ever after.”