After several unsuccessful attempts by other studios and producers to adapt the musical to film, Disney announced in 2012 that it was producing an adaptation, with Marshall directing and John DeLuca serving as producer. Principal photography commenced in September 2013, and took place entirely in the United Kingdom, including at Shepperton Studios in London.
A Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) wish for a child but suffer under a curse laid upon the Baker's family by a Witch (Meryl Streep) who found the Baker's father robbing her garden when his mother was pregnant. The Baker's father also stole some beans which caused the Witch's mother to punish her with the curse of ugliness. The Witch offers to lift the curse, but only if the Baker and his Wife obtain four critical items for her: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. The Witch later tells the Baker that she asked him to do this task for her because she is not allowed to touch any of the objects.
The Witch's demands eventually bring the Baker and his Wife into contact with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who is selling his beloved cow, Milky-White, and to whom the Baker offers magic beans left him by his father (which were stolen from the Witch) which grow into a large beanstalk; with Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), whose ruby cape the couple notices when she stops to buy sweets on her way to grandmother's house; with Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), whose tower the Baker's Wife passes in the woods; and with Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who also runs into the Baker's Wife while fleeing from the pursuing Prince (Chris Pine).
After a series of failed attempts and misadventures, the Baker and his Wife finally are able to gather the items necessary to break the spell. Meanwhile, each of the other characters receive their "happy endings": Cinderella marries the Prince; Jack provides for his mother by stealing riches from the Giant in the sky, and kills the pursuing Giant by cutting down the beanstalk; Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are saved from the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp); and the Witch regains her youth and beauty after drinking the potion.
However, each of the characters learns their "happily ever after" is not very happy: the Baker is worried he is a poor father to his newborn baby; the Baker's Wife is temporarily seduced by the Prince; Cinderella is disenchanted by the cheating Prince; and the Witch learns that she has lost her powers with her restored youth and beauty. The growth of a second beanstalk from the last remaining magic bean allows the Giant's Wife to climb down and threaten the kingdom and its inhabitants if they do not deliver Jack in retribution for killing her husband. The characters debate the morality of handing Jack over. In the process, Red Riding Hood's Mother and Grandmother, Jack's Mother, and the Baker's Wife are killed. The characters blame each other for their individual actions that lead to the tragedy, ultimately blaming the Witch for raising the beans in the first place. She curses them for their inability to accept their individual responsibilities. Casting all her remaining beans away, she begs her mother to punish her again and disappears into a large pit of boiling tar.
The remaining characters resolve to kill the threatening Giant's Wife, though Cinderella and the Baker try to explain to the distraught Red Riding Hood and Jack the complicated morality of retribution and revenge. The characters lure the Giant's Wife into stepping in the tar pit where she ultimately trips and falls to her death. The Giant's Wife is killed, and the characters move forward with their ruined lives. The Baker, thinking of his Wife, is determined to be a good father. Cinderella decides to leave the Prince and help the Baker, and Jack and Red Riding Hood, now orphans, are living with the Baker and Cinderella. The Baker comforts his son after he begins to cry by telling a story as the movie ends with the Witch's moral, meaning that children can change due to the parent's actions and behaviors.
While it was initially reported that Disney had decided to make some major plot changes for the film version in order to make it more family-friendly, Stephen Sondheim revealed that this was not the case and that any changes in the film version had been approved by him and James Lapine.
Thus, the film does slightly differ from the stage production. The songs "I Guess This Is Goodbye", "Maybe They're Magic", "First Midnight" and "Second Midnight" interludes, "Ever After" (Act I finale of the original play), "So Happy", "Into the Woods" Reprise, "Agony" Reprise and "No More" (performed by the Baker) were cut from the film, although both "Ever After" and "No More" are used as instrumentals in the film. Meanwhile, many of the songs in the film have slightly different lyrics than their stage counterparts due to the slight tweaking of storylines.
Other changes include a major reduction of the significant role of the "Mysterious Man", who manipulates much of the action in the first act and is eventually revealed to be the Baker's father. Also, the character of the Narrator is deleted, and the film is instead narrated by the Baker. The minor role of Cinderella's Father was cut, and he is instead mentioned as deceased. Due to the film's compressed storyline, Rapunzel's pregnancy is eliminated, as is the subplot where the two princes have affairs with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In the film, the Giant's Wife attacks during the marriages of Cinderella and Rapunzel to their respective Princes, no more than a few weeks after the events of act one, while in the stage show, nearly a year passes between the first and second acts. Rapunzel's ultimate fate is also changed: rather than being killed by the giant, she refuses to cooperate with the Witch and flees with her prince.
Similarly, much of the violence and sexual content is slightly toned down from the original musical. The death of Jack's Mother is less violent in the film; on stage, the Steward clubs her to death with his staff, in the film, he simply shoves her to the ground and she hits her head on a log. The death of the Baker's Wife is not explicitly shown in the film, and the cause of her death is changed from being crushed by a tree in the Giant's Wife's wake to accidentally backing off the edge of a cliff while fleeing from the Giant's Wife.
Early attempts of adapting Into the Woods to film occurred in the early 1990s, with a script written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. A reading was held with a cast that included Robin Williams as The Baker, Goldie Hawn as The Baker's Wife, Cher as The Witch, Danny DeVito as The Giant, Steve Martin as The Wolf, and Roseanne Barr as Jack's Mother. By 1991, Columbia Pictures and Jim Henson Productions were also developing a film adaptation with Craig Zadan as producer and Rob Minkoff as director. In 1997, Columbia put the film into turnaround, with Minkoff still attached as director, and Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Susan Sarandon reportedly in talks to star. After the report by Variety, a film adaptation of Into the Woods remained inactive for 15 years.
After the critical and commercial success of Chicago in 2002, director Rob Marshall approached Stephen Sondheim as he was interested in adapting one of his musicals such as Follies and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, although Sondheim suggested Into the Woods instead. Marshall concurred, but development of the project was then postponed while he focused on directing Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine. In 2011, Marshall's interest in the project was rekindled when he heard a speech by President Barack Obama on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks to the families of the 9/11 victims, which seemed to evoke the same message as the musical's most important song, "No One Is Alone". Marshall firmly believed that Into the Woods was “a fairy tale for the post-9/11 generation". In January 2012, Marshall approached Walt Disney Pictures—for whom he had just directed Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides—and pitched the idea to the studio, with Lapine writing the script and Sondheim "expected" to write new songs. Academy Award-winner Dion Beebe, who previously collaborated with Marshall on Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Nine, served as cinematographer. Sondheim confirmed that a new song had been written for the film.
With Disney's backing, a three-day reading of the entire updated screenplay took place in New York in October 2012 under Marshall's direction, with Nina Arianda as the Baker's Wife, Victoria Clark as Cinderella's Mother/Granny/Giant, James Corden as the Baker, Donna Murphy as the Witch, Christine Baranski as Cinderella's Stepmother, Tammy Blanchard as Florinda, Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf, Megan Hilty as Lucinda, Cheyenne Jackson as Rapunzel's Prince, Allison Janney as Jack's Mother, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Michael McGrath as Steward/Mysterious Man, Laura Osnes as Rapunzel, Taylor Trensch as Jack, Casey Whyland as Little Red Riding Hood, and Patrick Wilson as Cinderella's Prince. It was this reading which ultimately convinced Walt Disney Studios president Sean Bailey to green-light the film despite ongoing concerns about the dark nature of the original musical (which Disney executives had begun to understand since Marshall's original pitch). However, Disney (which self-finances all its films) provided only a relatively small production budget of $50 million (relative to other feature-length fantasy films on its development slate), in turn forcing both cast and crew to accept pay cuts to work on the film.
Reports subsequently surfaced in January 2013 that Meryl Streep had been cast to play the Witch. Streep had instituted a personal "no witch" rule after she turned 40 and was offered three witch roles, but ultimately broke her own rule to do a Sondheim role again. (As a young Yale University student, she had participated in the original production of Sondheim's The Frogs.) During the same month, it was reported that Janney had been confirmed to join the film as well. Five months later, however, Tracey Ullman was cast as Jack's Mother instead.
In April 2013, Johnny Depp was in final negotiations, along with Streep, to join the film. The Hollywood Reporter reported that to help make the film on such a tight budget, Depp agreed as a favor to Disney and to Marshall (whom he had just worked with in On Stranger Tides) to a "boarding" arrangement, in which he would appear in a minor role for a fee of $1 million, instead of his typical fee of $20 million for a starring role. In May, James Corden, who took part in the reading of the screenplay, was in talks to play the role of the Baker. On May 10, 2013, Disney confirmed the casting of Streep, Depp, and Corden as the Witch, the Big Bad Wolf, and the Baker, respectively. That same month, Emily Blunt and Christine Baranski were cast, respectively, as the Baker's Wife and Cinderella's Stepmother. Marshall later confirmed that Blunt was selected for her "warm[th]" and likeability to ensure the emotional impact of the sudden death of the Baker's Wife: "[T]hat’s very important for that character because it’s the heart of the piece and you really have to love her so when she’s gone it should feel like a kick in the gut." After she was cast, Blunt discovered she was pregnant and her costume and choreography had to be adjusted accordingly. However, her "overweight" appearance during production actually fit in with the role of the Baker's Wife; as she explained, "I feel like she would have eaten a lot of carbs working in the bakery."
Also in May, Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Pine entered negotiations to play the Princes. However, Gyllenhaal dropped out of the film due to scheduling conflicts with another film, Nightcrawler, and was subsequently replaced by Billy Magnussen. One month later, Anna Kendrick began talks to play Cinderella in the film. In June 2013, Walt Disney Studios publicly announced that the film had been greenlighted, and scheduled a release date for Christmas Day 2014. In July, MacKenzie Mauzy, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch and Daniel Huttlestone joined the cast. In early August, Sophia Grace Brownlee's representatives announced that she had been cast as Little Red Riding Hood. The announcement of Brownlee's casting, which was widely reported but never confirmed by Disney, was criticized as "a stunt" and was met with concern due to her age and the sexual undertones present between Little Red and the Wolf. Mauzy later revealed that she first auditioned for Cinderella but did not get the part. However, director Marshall saw her audition tape and brought her back in for Rapunzel, after recognizing "the 'vulnerability' and 'emotion' Mauzy could bring to Rapunzel after she read just one line", as he recalled. The film's plot synopsis and the official casting of lead actors Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and Emily Blunt were revealed at the D23 Expo on August 10, 2013. On September 16, 2013, Lilla Crawford was confirmed as playing the character of Little Red Riding Hood, despite previous reports suggesting Brownlee. Crawford auditioned for Marshall via Skype, who offered her the role within two hours; she was on a flight to London the next day. Later on, Dominic Brownlee spoke about the withdrawal of his daughter Sophia Grace from the movie: "After careful consideration, we the parents of Sophia Grace, felt that as rehearsals progressed that she was too young for this part. It was a joint decision between us and the director and producer of Into the Woods to withdraw Sophia Grace from the film." Apart from Crawford, the casting of Richard Glover, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, and Annette Crosbie in other roles was also separately announced later on September 16.
In July 2013, before filming began, Marshall put the cast through six weeks of rehearsals on a soundstage and blocked their scenes. In August, the cast members visited Angel Recording Studios to separately record their respective parts in the presence of Sondheim himself. Over 90% of the vocal tracks in the final version of the film are from the recording studio sessions, while the rest were recorded on location or on the set. The advantage of blocking and rehearsing all scenes first was that the cast members could then precisely calibrate their voices in the recording studio to the planned appearance of each scene when later filmed, thereby minimizing the slightly disconcerting disconnection between vocals and choreography typical of music videos.
Principal photography took place at London's Shepperton Studios in September 2013, with additional filming taking place at Dover Castle, Hambleden, Waverley Abbey: and Richmond Park. A forest of ancient pine trees in Windsor Great Park was used for many of the scenes in the woods. Marshall struggled with how to stage the melodramatic duet "Agony" in the forest until discovering online that Windsor had an artificial waterfall at Virginia Water Lake, which turned out to be the perfect location for the song. The production was shot digitally, using Arri Alexa cameras configured in a two-camera setup. Footage was edited together in Avid Media Composer. The exterior of Byfleet Manor in Surrey served as Cinderella's home.
The filmmakers spent a whole day shooting scenes which involved Rapunzel's hair being climbed upon. Mauzy claimed that the filmmakers wanted to take advantage of her blonde hair, and that the top of Rapunzel's hair appeared in the film was her own real hair; make-up artists only braided it into the extension. This hair extension was engineered by hair designer Peter King. After testing loose, flowing hair which King found "uncontrollable", he decided to have twenty-seven wefts of real hair woven together into a 30-foot braid, a design which took inspiration from an Arthur Rackham illustration of Rapunzel. In order to bring in enough real Russian hair strands needed for the extension, King and his team had to work with several distributors from Germany and England. The hair-braiding process required three people, each holding a separate strand and weaving in and out. King also dyed the wefts for them to match Mauzy's champagne blonde hair color, and blended together six different shades from ash and strawberry to create realistic gradations and highlights. Between scenes, Mauzy had to "wrap [the hair] around her arm like huge rolls of wool", as recalled by King. A stuntman was employed to shoot hair-climbing scenes. Thin rope and metal rings were the only additional tools concealed within the braid to hold the weight of a person climbing up.
The film's final shot, which essentially merges into and links back to its first shot, actually transitions digitally between three shots: a Technocrane on location lifting as high as possible into the sky, an aerial drone flying down a valley in Wales, and a shot of an overcast sky in Manhattan, New York City. Filming concluded on November 27, 2013.
On July 14, 2014, Steve Baldwin posted on a social networking site that reshoots were made during the whole month of July. The following month, however, Rob Marshall denied the film went through re-shoots. Instead, they spent three days shooting new material that had been cut and re-added to the script after Disney screened the movie. For his role as the Wolf, Depp worked closely with the film's costume designer Colleen Atwood to create a Tex Avery-inspired costume, complete with zoot suit and fedora.
As noted above, the majority of the songs were pre-recorded by the cast. Music producer Mike Higham, who had previously worked with Sondheim on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, recorded the film's score with the London Symphony Orchestra and London Philharmonic. Music supervisor and conductor Paul Gemignani instructed the actors on how to sing, including singing live to a camera on set, to prerecorded music in studio, and with a live studio orchestra. Jonathan Tunick orchestrated Sondheim's original music. The key to the song, "Hello, Little Girl," was altered to better suit Johnny Depp's lower vocal range. In regards to the song's musical arrangement, Higham explained; "we emphasized the woodwinds to make it feel a little lighter, especially the flutes. And we just made it a little jazzier — played more on the walking bass line. Inherently, when it has a jazz feel, it just feels lighter." The film's soundtrack was released by Walt Disney Records on December 15, 2014.
While it was initially reported that the film version would feature two new songs: a duet for the Baker and his Wife, titled "Rainbows"—originally written for a 1992 film adaptation that was never made—and a new song for the Witch, eventually titled "She'll Be Back". In the end, neither song appears in the finished film: "Rainbows" was cut before shooting began and "She'll Be Back", though filmed, was cut from the film on the grounds that it slowed the story down. "She'll Be Back" was included as a bonus feature on the film's home media release.
The first official company presentation took place at the 2013 Disney D23 expo. The official teaser trailer debuted on July 31, 2014. A featurette was released showing behind-the-scenes clips and the vocals of Streep, Kendrick, Blunt and others. A second trailer was released on November 6, 2014.
The film held its world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City on December 8, 2014. It was released theatrically in the United States on December 25, 2014.
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment released the film on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download in North America on March 24, 2015. The film debuted in second place on the home media charts behind The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The home media version includes Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's original song "She'll Be Back".
Into the Woods grossed $128 million in North America, and $85.1 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $213.1 million, against a budget of $50 million.
Into the Woods began playing across North American theaters on December 24, 2014, and earned $1.1 million from late-night Christmas Eve showings and $15.08 million on its opening day (including previews) from 2,440 theaters. Its opening day gross was the fourth-biggest Christmas Day debut and the sixth-biggest Christmas Day gross ever. The film was among one of four films put into wide release on December 25, 2014, the other three being Universal Pictures' Unbroken (3,131 theaters), Paramount Pictures' The Gambler (2,478 theaters), and TWC's Big Eyes (1,307 theaters). It earned $31.1 million in its traditional three-day opening ($46.1 million including its Christmas Day gross) debuting at #2 at the box office behind The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, achieving the highest opening weekend for a film based on a Broadway musical (previously held by Mamma Mia!). The film's $3.5 million debut in Japan marked the largest opening for a 21st-century live-action musical film.
Despite early screenings prior to the film's release, Disney issued an embargo on professional reviews of the film until two weeks before general theatrical release. Into the Woods received generally positive reviews from critics. The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 71% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 196 reviews, with an average rating of 6.6/10. The site's consensus reads: "On the whole, this Disney adaptation of the Sondheim classic sits comfortably at the corner of Hollywood and Broadway—even if it darkens to its detriment in the final act." The cast—particularly the performances by Streep, Blunt and Pine—received wide acclaim as well as its production design, and costume design Another review aggregator, Metacritic, calculates a score of 69 out of 100, based on 41 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". In CinemaScore polls conducted during the opening weekend, cinema audiences gave Into the Woods an average grade of "B" on an A+ to F scale.
Streep was immensely applauded for her performance as the Witch, with many critics and audiences believing she was the film's heart. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post called her and Blunt's portrayals as "two of the greatest female performances of the year". For her performance, Streep received Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Broadcast Film Critics Association Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film "benefits from respect for the source material, enticing production values and a populous gallery of sharp character portraits from a delightful cast". Stephen Holden of The New York Times lauded the film, writing; "Into the Woods, the splendid Disney screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, infuses new vitality into the tired marketing concept of entertainment for 'children of all ages'". Leonard Maltin called the movie as "one of the year's best films". Similarly, Pete Hammond of Deadline praised the film as "the most dazzling movie musical since Marshall's own Chicago." and praised the performance of the cast, particularly Streep. Lou Lumerick of the New York Post called the film "this century's best musical" and lauded the performances of Streep and Blunt as the best female performances of the year. Scott Mendelson of Forbes gave a positive review declaring the film "Rob Marshall's best movie ever" and praised it for its genuine entertainment and strong cast performances. Richard Corliss of Time gave a positive review, stating that the film was a "smart, appealing, upside-down children’s story for adults of all ages". Gregory Ellwood of HitFix tipped Streep as an Academy Award contender in the Best Supporting Actress category, and also praised the performance of Chris Pine.
Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair, Karen D'Souza of the San Jose Mercury News, and Dana Stevens of Slate all published critical reviews of the film. All three found much to like in the acting (especially Blunt and Pine's performances), but all three also concluded that after the various cuts and changes, the final version of the film had failed to adequately preserve the power of the dark existentialist message at the heart of the original musical's second act. Stevens characterized the result as a "generic dystopian bummer," while Lawson criticized the film as a "dutiful but perfunctory adaptation" which lacked "genuine heart". Paul Katz of The Huffington Post felt the change in tone between the last two acts was too abrupt, and also criticized the film's faithfulness to the stage musical. Conversely, Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post disliked the performances by Streep and Depp, while simultaneously calling the film's first two acts a "surprising delight".