Should Kids Go "Into the Woods?" A Parent Movie Review

As a diehard musical theater fanatic who's raising my nine-year-old daughter to be one, too, I'd been planning for months to take her to see Into the Woods on opening day. (Luckily, we scored an invite to an advance screening.) That said, having seen two different stage mountings of the show plus the American Playhouse recording of the original Broadway cast, I kept thinking, Into the Woods really isn't for kids. Stephen Sondheim's satirical take on familiar fairy tales explores what happens after the happily ever after, and it's as grown-up as it gets. Multiple characters die, others engage in infidelity, and there are undercurrents of violence and sexuality (not unlike those Brothers Grimm originals). And yet, this star-studded cinematic adaptation is Disney's big Christmas movie release. So, has the subject matter been completely sanitized in order to attract families?

The short answer is, no. Although earlier this year rumors swirled that Disney had made major plot changes and cut poignant songs in order to lighten the mood, most of the story and much of the darkness remain intact. True, elements have been toned down (the cheating is reduced to kissing, not sex; those who die do so off-screen) and tweaks were certainly made. But overall it's a surprisingly faithful adaptation. Which begs the question: Is Into the Woods good for kids?

If they're older and really into musicals, yes. At nine, my daughter and her musical-loving friend were borderline too young, and not because of the tone. The issue is Sondheim's lyrics. They're just so jam-packed with word play and meaning, even adults have trouble taking it all in. From my favorite song in the show, er, movie, "Moments in the Woods:" "Must it all be either less or more / Either plain or grand? / Is it always "or"? Is it never "and"?" Clever, yes, but not easy to grasp, especially for children who don't yet understand how much compromise life can require. (I regret that we didn't listen to the soundtrack a few times before watching the film.)

Still, the kids had a great time identifying famous fairy tale characters ("Hey, that's Rapunzel! Cinderella! Little Red Riding Hood! Jack and the Beanstalk!") and meeting new ones (while there are multiple threads, the main story revolves around a poor Baker and his Wife, who are childless due to a Witch's curse). They also loved the over-the-top costumes and the singing, which was pretty strong, even from movie stars like Meryl Streep, Chris Pine and Emily Blunt who aren't known for their vocal chops. The kids did start to lose focus during the last third, which is the most challenging section. Still, there's definitely a lot to look at and listen to, even if kids don't get all of it—or any of it.

For my family, the highlight was the hilarious "Agony," when Cinderella's and Rapunzel's princes (Star Trek's Chris Pine and theater stalwart Billy Magnussen) try to one-up each other in lovesickness. My kid is still giggling about how they ripped their shirts open in melodramatic torment. The lowlight has got to be Johnny Depp as the Wolf singing "Hello, Little Girl" to Little Red Riding Hood. In stage productions, Red is usually played by an adult so the song is filled with sexually charged double entendres. Here, Red is portrayed by a young teen (Lilla Crawford, who recently played Annie on Broadway) so it's a bit creepy—especially if you're mom to a daughter on the cusp of puberty.

Even having seen the film, I still wonder who, exactly, Into the Woods is aimed at. Families with young children may be bored or confused or possibly shocked. It's not Frozen 2.0. I don't predict legions of little girls running around belting out the Witch's "Last Midnight" à la "Let It Go" (perhaps a good thing). But it is a thoughtful adaptation of a conversation-provoking musical that may rightfully earn Sondheim a new generation of fans.

Into the Woods is rated PG and opens nationwide on Christmas Day.

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