'Into the Woods': How Disney Tiptoed Around Johnny Depp's Creepy, Sexualized Song

Into the Woods Johnny Depp H 2014
Walt Disney Pictures/Screenshot

Into the Woods Johnny Depp H 2014

Crooning the predatory "Hello, Little Girl," Depp plays the Wolf to Lilla Crawford's Little Red Riding Hood

Into the Woods gets quite creepy, quite quickly.

One of many big names in the movie musical's star-studded ensemble is Johnny Depp, who appears as the Wolf to Little Red Riding Hood, played by Lilla Crawford. The two meet in the forest and share the duet, "Hello, Little Girl," as the young girl gets distracted by flowers on her way to visit her ailing grandmother with a basket of baked goods.

The song is the third number the film — heard during the first half, which director Rob Marshall has described as "very much a romp and a farce; it's joyous, smart, clever and playful," and well before the movie takes a darker turn. In most stagings of the twisty, fairytale-filled Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, the barely-clothed Wolf howls loudly while closing the song with a pelvic thrust.

Countless theater chatroom commenters have debated the song's double-meanings, pointing out lascivious symbols like Red's lust-colored cape and object of exploration: flowers, alluding to virginity. The companion number to "Hello, Little Girl" is Red's "I Know Things Now," which has often been interpreted as the character's response to a first sexual encounter. Sondheim has said this was an objection during the adaptation process, along with the onscreen fate of some characters.

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So how did the Disney release specifically handle Depp and Crawford's sexualized song?

"Delicately, very delicately; we were aware of the implications," producer John DeLuca told The Hollywood Reporter at the film's premiere earlier this month. "And we really wanted to hire kids on this — you don’t do that onstage, they're [usually] older. ... So we just found our way, not making it too heavy on the pedophilia front."

Musically, "it's a very difficult thing because it's inherent in the lyrics," said music producer and supervisor Michael Higham, who also collaborated with Depp on the 2007 movie-musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. While the arrangement remains largely untouched, "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."

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The key of the original song was also lowered to fit Depp's range, which presents an even starker contrast to Crawford's pure soprano lines. "The nice thing is that the introduction of the song is still dark, so you don't quite know where you are," Higham added of the low notes that ground Depp's growls and initial lyrics. "The moment Johnny starts into his upbeat section [with Crawford], it's just fun."

Crawford wasn't intimidated to star as the target of the film's most predatory scene. "You can play it so many ways, so just don't play it that way!" she laughed. "We kind of staged it as maybe that creepy guy who's like, 'Hey, get in the van, and he turns out to be a kidnapper.' That's kind of how it was."

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Despite the changes to the arrangements and costume designer Colleen Atwood's Tex Avery-inspired lupine zoot suit, which hides the character's animalistic anatomy, the Wolf still circles around Red with enough suggestion to trigger some shivers, especially as he sings, "Look at that flesh, pink and plump, Hello, little girl."

Of the decision to keep enough of the track's innuendo of insatiability onscreen, DeLuca said, "You have to — he has to be the temptation of pulling her off this path to the flowers, to the awakening. The temptation of something alluring, something attractive. But no, we couldn't hit it over the head."

The lyrics also include the kicker: "There's no possible way to describe what you feel when you're talking to your meal!" But DeLuca isn't concerned about a backlash from parents who see the Christmas Day release with their young ones.

"I'm not worried about that at all, because of the way we treated it," he explained. "See, because the child sees life so much differently: you see what you look for in something, and the child sees this crazy wolf that she has made human. He just wants to eat her, he really wants to devour her — he's hungry! So many people that have brought their kids to see it, the kids love it because they see it from their vantage point." DeLuca also noted that parents "love it too," because they understand the suggestiveness that goes over their children's heads.

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"This movie is a reality check, but it's also mixed with fantasy," added Crawford of her character's interaction with Depp's Wolf. "It's all about growing up and becoming an adult, leaving your childhood and becoming a young woman. I think so many girls my age can relate to that — even I can, and that's what so special about Little Red Riding Hood in this version."

Listen to the duet below.

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee