I had low hopes going into this one. The trailers did not fill me with confidence, and the rumors of excessive tampering behind the scenes had me worried. And of course, Disney’s live-action tentpole offerings (the Marvel films excluded) have given the strong impression that these guys wouldn’t know their asses from holes in the ground. In fact, I’d wager that the higher-ups at Disney are still licking their wounds from Tron: Legacy and the mishandled John Carter. Hell, I just saw the shallow and misguided Maleficent not eight months ago, and I’m supposed to take this Disney live-action fantasy seriously?!
Yet here we are with Into the Woods, an adaptation of the classic Stephen Sondheim stage musical, placed within this years Christmas Day Oscar-baiting dump. And I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised.
(Side note: To get my own history with the musical out of the way, I have very fond memories of watching the 1991 American Playhouse presentation with the original Broadway cast. Back when we were kids, I must have watched that VHS recording at least a dozen times with my sister, who eventually played the Witch for a presentation of the abridged “Into the Woods Jr.” one-act.)
To start with, I’m relieved to say that this is a very faithful adaptation. By which I mean that the central messages of the source material are all very much intact. The central theme of “be careful what you wish for” is crystal clear, and the deconstruction of fairy tale morality is entirely there. We still have good people doing bad things for well-intentioned reasons, we still have characters questioning whether the ends justify the means and what constitutes fair punishment, and the cliche of “happily ever after” is still very much deflated.
As for reports that the “marital infidelity” angle would be toned down… well, strictly speaking, I suppose it was toned down to PG standards. Which, compared to the source material, isn’t really much of a step backwards. Anyway, the important thing is that the play’s treatment of darker imagery and grown-up concepts is absolutely intact. Not all of it carried over — obviously, some of it was going to be lost in the process of adaptation — but certainly more than enough.
Speaking of adaptation, it was a very smart move to get James Lapine — who wrote and directed the original stage production — to write the screenplay. Lapine knew exactly which parts were absolutely essential to the story, how to preserve them, and how to organize them into a brisk two-hour film. Most of the stuff that was excised came from the second act, but that’s no surprise; even the play’s most die-hard fans would admit that the second act was the weaker half. Another, perhaps more heartbreaking exclusion concerns the narrator, now just a disembodied voice instead of a character in his own right. Likewise, the Mysterious Man is now gone, until he reappears out of the blue just before the film’s climax. But aside from that one little speed bump, the film does a remarkably good job of spackling over the holes to keep the plot moving just as well without them.
Then we have the cast. All of them are uniformly astounding, without exception, though I can understand how some filmgoers might be turned away by a few of the performances. As an example, I’ve read a couple of reviews saying that Little Red Riding Hood (newcomer Lilla Crawford) is ungodly annoying, and… well, they’re not wrong. Sure, she’s a gluttonous and high-pitched little brat in the movie, but then, that’s how she was in the play. Attention must also be given to Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, and Chris Pine, all of whom collectively chew more scenery than any giant possibly could. Then again, they’re playing the Witch, the Wolf, and Cinderella’s Prince, and there is absolutely no way to underplay any of those roles. It simply can’t be done.
In fact, the entire cast’s raw and overpowering commitment to their performances is perhaps the movie’s greatest asset. Chris Pine is a solid example: His character was always meant to be a satire of your typical fairy tale Prince Charming, and that absolutely comes through in how much Pine was willing to make fun of himself.
Then there’s Johnny Depp. The very first time I saw the Wolf, that was one of those moments when I knew I was going to hate this movie. That costume might have passed muster in a community theater production, but it looks ridiculously half-assed and out of place in a multimillion-dollar Hollywood picture. Yet somehow, it just works. I can’t explain it. Somehow, Depp’s overacting meshes with the rest of the cast overacting, and it just somehow works.
Yet the overacting can also work as a double-edged sword. This is a big problem that I have with stage-to-screen adaptations, because acting for one medium is not the same as acting for the other. Playing to the cheap seats is fine onstage, because the cheap seats are at least twenty or thirty feet away. That obstacle doesn’t exist in a movie theater, when an actor is mugging to a camera five feet away and their faces are then projected onto a forty-foot screen. Granted, this problem isn’t nearly as prominent as it was in the 2012 Les Miserables adaptation, but the same basic idea stands.
Speaking of which, this movie features Daniel Huttlestone in the role of Jack, after appearing as Gavroche in the aforementioned Les Mis. Kid stole the show in both features and I’m sure he’s got a bright future. James Corden has also more than proven himself, after carrying this movie incredibly well and putting in a neat little performance in the superb Begin Again a few months ago. As for Emily Blunt… really, what can I say that I haven’t said already in my other reviews? If she’s not on the A-list yet, she really should be.
Then we have the music. The songs are all beautifully presented and director Rob Marshall takes some very creative measures in staging them for the screen. Though I’m sorry to say that not all of those measures land perfectly. For instance, when Red is singing about everything she learned from her encounter with the wolf, we’re actually following her and her grandma through the Wolf’s digestive tract. Was that really necessary? Seriously?
Another example is “On the Steps of the Palace.” In the stage version, the song works to describe a scene that we don’t see — namely, the moment when Cinderella is trapped trying to flee the Prince’s festival for the third time. But in the movie, Cinderella sings it while she’s stuck on the stairway and time has slowed down so she can sing about her feelings. The song still works, to an extent, but it’s not nearly as effective when it’s telling us things that we can plainly see then and there in the moment.
The Narrator suffers a very similar problem. So many of the Narrator’s lines in the play were written to fill in the blanks and tell the audience about what’s happening just offscreen. But when those lines are included even when we can plainly see the things that Narrator is taking about, what’s even the point?
This brings me to my biggest issue with the movie. One of the things that most fascinates me about the stage is its abstract nature. A play doesn’t need multimillion-dollar budgets, elaborate sets, or fancy special effects to tell a story. A play could just be one actor on a blank stage, pantomiming everything around them, and get away with implicitly asking the audience to fill in the blanks.
Yet movies are very different because they’re so concrete. Every prop, character, and costume has to be clearly defined for the audience to see. In this case, it means that so many things about this play — the magic, the giants, the Prince’s festival, Red and her grandma getting eaten by the wolf, etc. — that were left to the viewers’ imaginations are now represented by CGI. Does that come with the process of adaptation? Sure. But does it make the story better? Your mileage may vary, but personally, I’d argue that it doesn’t. After all, this play is about fairy tales, and so much about fairy tales depends on the audiences’ imaginations. The stage plays into that in a way that cinema never could. Certainly not under this director.
It absolutely breaks my heart that this movie had a reported $50 million budget, a sterling cast, a clear sense of duty toward the source material, and some wonderful costume design (aside from the Wolf and possibly the transformed Witch), yet the visuals were so pitifully uninspired. Pretty much the whole movie, both in and out of the forest, looks drab and washed-out, with none of the energy to match the story or the performances. It looks exactly like the kind of “grim and dark fantasy” look that became in vogue with Alice in Underland. Then continued on with Snow White and the Huntsman, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, and oh my God PLEASE MAKE THIS STOP. I mean, say what you will about Mirror Mirror, at least that movie had a distinctive look to it. Is it too much to ask for another live-action fantasy movie that doesn’t look like it’s trying to rip off the last few Harry Potter movies?
Whatever problems I have with Into the Woods, they stem from the process of stage-to-screen adaptation. Aside from some improved pacing, I don’t think that this movie is better than the source material, but so very few adaptations are. Nevertheless, I thought this was a very faithful and well-intentioned adaptation that was executed in a sufficiently entertaining way. Even so, there are some things about the play that I’d much rather leave to the audience’s imagination instead of Rob Marshall’s.
If you’re a fan of musical theater, I have no doubt that you’ll have a wonderful time. Otherwise, this probably won’t be the movie to make you a convert, but it’s still worth a watch. After all, it’s not like there are many alternatives out right now. Seriously, if you want a movie to take your kids to this holiday season (assuming you’ve already seen Big Hero 6 and they’re too young for The Hobbit) I’m sure that this is a way better option than Night at the Museum 3 or Annie.
P.S. The 1991 recording of Into the Woods with the original Broadway cast is available on DVD at Amazon. I strongly recommend it.