I kind of feel bad for anyone who takes his or her little kid to “Into the Woods” expecting a typical fairy tale movie. Actually, no I don’t. At all.
The film, opening Thursday, is a strong adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical, though the material is watered down — the original show is quite dark, with sexual undertones that are missing here — and trimmed to fit the brisk two-hour run time. In it, fairy tale characters meet and mingle as they all try to secure their happily ever afters. Then they do, only to discover that most of their happy endings sprung from someone else’s sadness. That’s very different from the usual Disney princess pablum; even in the progressive “Frozen” no one actually died. That’s not the case here.
“Into the Woods” has its princesses, of course — Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) both are there, with quicker wits and darker endings than they got in their animated treatments. And while I’m absolutely in favor of stronger women on film, the most clever flipping of the princess script in “Into the Woods” comes from Chris Pine. He plays Cinderella’s Prince (that’s the actual name of the character), the embodiment of that often-overlooked flip side of fairy tales: He hunts, he chases, he romances and he is utterly weightless. Not Pine’s performance, which would steal the show except one does not steal shows from Meryl Streep (playing the Witch). (He seems to be doing a William Shatner impression, which, given their shared “Star Trek” heritage, makes the whole thing even funnier.)
In a rendition of “Agony,” the song he shares with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen), the two actors are so over-the-top committed to the absurdity and it works so well the audience I was with broke into applause at the end. No one clapped for Meryl Streep.
Pine’s Prince is, in its own way, another indictment of the glittered stories we feed our girls. In most fairy tales, the prince is the ultimate prize, a symbol of the success and protection that a scullery maid/girl in tower/put-upon princess can’t achieve on her own. In “Into The Woods,” the Prince is still the goal, but he comes with a price: Namely, he’s a narcissistic moron (his signature line is “I was raised to be charming, not sincere”).
“Into the Woods” has always been about the stories we tell our children; I just assumed that the sharpest points were reserved for what we say about princesses. The movie, though, made me realize that with fairy tales, boys don’t exactly come out ahead — instead, they’re taught that as long as they’re brave and handsome, there’s no need to be anything else.
Read Kristen Page-Kirby’s roundup of 2014’s best movies in the Jan. 2 edition of Express.