I love Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods a lot. It’s smart, funny, musically gorgeous, thematically rich, and of personal interest. So when I heard Disney was going to make a movie version, I had…concerns.

Those concerns were only partially founded. The movie is Disneyfied, but deftly. It’s lightened, but thoughtfully. It was shortened to fit into a typical movie length not with desperate hacking, but careful elimination.

The Disney movie removes some of what makes Into the Woods great, but none of what makes it good. Minor spoilers to follow (which shouldn’t especially be spoilers if you know the stage version, but anyway).

1) It’s Upfront About Its Changes

My theory about musicals is that the first song is there to orient the audience. That’s especially important in movie musicals. Chicago uses theirs to introduce the mechanism of Roxie’s imagination; Moulin Rouge sends us careening through bizarro Paris so that nothing afterward is as off-puttingly weird.

Into the Woods uses its iconic first song to establish how the movie will handle the source.
– There’s no visible narrator: the meta aspects are gone.
– The main characters are present and accounted for. The music is intact.
– Casting actual kids in the kids’ roles means adult subtext will be muted.
– They’re going to CGI the magic, because movies can do that. It’s awesome.
– Lines might be excised or softened (no unnecessary dissing of Jack or his mother).
– The Baker’s father simply ran off. (No “baking accident”.) This storyline is changed.

Like I said: shortened, softened, Disneyfied. You have the entire first song to decide if you’re okay with that. I like derivative works as a rule and I’m interested in adaptive approaches, so I’m fine with it.

2) None of the Changes Are As Bad As You’ve Heard

The news coming out of production was Not Good. They took out X, they weren’t going to touch Y, and Z doesn’t even die! How does that work??

They found a way. Everything eliminated was replaced with something in line with the new tone. Depp’s wolf is less seducer than shyster. The subsequent “I Know Things Now” is stripped of subtext, but they gave us an interesting staging of Red’s recap to make up for it. Z character doesn’t die, but is explicitly gone forever. (It’s not quite enough for me, but I appreciate the effort.) Some deaths move offscreen or have less sticky causes.

It’s different, but every change had the same goal: a PG-rated version no darker than it had to be, as faithful as possible. They kept their goal in their sights. And it paid off, because…

3) So Much Good Stuff Remains

“If they cut ‘Agony’,” muttered my sister on the way in, “I’m throwing popcorn at the screen.”

They did not cut “Agony.” They placed it on a set no stage could ever afford, and let their princes roll around in it like pigs in mud. Chris Pine is a gem. A GEM.

Meryl Streep crawls, whirls, and gnaws through the scenery. Her emotive scenes are brilliant and her funny ones are a scream. Yes, she gets to sing The Last Midnight, and it’s the clear showstopper it needs to be. Also, she has blue hair.

Milky White remains the comic relief, if you can ask that much of a cow.

Most of the laugh lines are intact, and they had room to add a few. Most of the themes are there, some of them slightly weakened, but present enough to give a ten-year-old something to think about without traumatizing them forever. Most of the songs are there–again, no reprises, and one big one is missing, along with its subplot.

If that sounds like a lot of “most”, remember how unlikely it seemed that they’d leave in anything from the second act.

The Into the Woods movie adaptation works because of clarity of vision.

This could have been a disaster in so many ways, but the movie was able to retain so much of the musical by being clear about its goals. The story’s not sweetened, just made less bitter. Things still make sense in a cause-and-effect way. (“Your Fault” is there, complete, and it works.) If it seems disingenuous to praise this movie for not being a total disaster, well, let’s recap: they turned a childhood-ending musical into an enjoyable PG Disney film. Maybe there is still magic in the world.

I have other thoughts about why this was able to work at all, but I’ll marshal those later…

Amanda C. Davis likes dark fairy tale retellings. A lot. Check out her collection with Megan Engelhardt, Wolves and Witches, currently 50% off at World Weaver Press, or read some of her work for free.