"I was raised to be charming, not sincere."
With the notable exception of his work with Warren Beatty, Stephen Sondheim does not have a great track record on film. Through no fault of his own, other than some questionable sign-offs on various elements that have gone into films with his music and songs in them, Sondheim has more or less proven that the theatre is truly the only place for his work. It was with this apprehension that I approached Rob Marshall's adaptation of one of Sondheim's most beloved musicals, Into the Woods, with the sting of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd still spreading across my cheek. I am happy to say that at least half of this film is actually very good—the first half—and that it's not the complete disaster that I thought it might be.
Into the Woods is a melding of several different fairy tales together, and several factors beyond Sondheim's shoddy treatment on film contributed to my apprehension. Since Disney has a corner on that whole fairy tale market, their involvement was understandable, but still a bit uneasy. When the film's rating was announced as PG, I knew that cuts had to have been made to secure such a family friendly rating. Finally the rumors that were flying this past summer about certain integral numbers being cut only fueled that agitation for me. I'm happy to report that the rumors proved false, though it seems as though in the filmmakers' rush to make sure that the songs "Any Moment" and "Moments in the Woods" remained in the film, some other crucial stuff was cut.
The story centers around a number of fairy tale characters who all live in close proximity to one another, and whose paths all converge in their quest for happily ever after. A childless Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) seek to have the curse that has left them without a child lifted by the Witch (Meryl Streep) who placed it on them. This brings them into conflict with Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), whose cloak they need, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) whose cow they need, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) whose slipper they need, and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) whose golden hair they need. They all converge in the woods over a period of three nights, and because this is a fairy tale, they all get what they need to live happily ever after.
This is where Sondheim and the show's book writer—and the film's screenwriter–James Lapine's show gets really interesting. Act 2 is set some time after they've all presumably gotten what they've wanted and a malaise sets in. The notion of what happens after "happily ever after" is an interesting one, and the show deals with this beautifully. The film's attempt to turn a neatly divided two act musical into a film, however, really falls apart at this point. The filmmakers seem to have opted to make the most family friendly musical, and so they've jettisoned much of the really tough stuff. It's all still sort of there in some form or another, but certain cuts really detract from the film's second half, and it's a weaker film as a result.
I have to say that in terms of working overall as a film, the cuts weren't as bad as they could have been, and the film itself doesn't necessarily suffer from the condensed second act. As a fan of the show, though, I am disappointed in what they chose to cut and what they chose to keep. Certain characters were given really short shrift as a result of the cuts, and while they're not major characters—Rapunzel and The Steward (Richard Glover) leap immediately to mind—the world of the film feels a little less realized than it could have. In fact, to go back to Rapunzel for a moment, she literally hops onto a horse and rides right the hell out of the film at one point, causing another major character's grand freakout number to have far less resonance than it should.
It's always hard to criticize a film adaptation of a work in another medium for the cuts they make, particularly when the screenplay was written by one of the original creators, but I do question why they took such a broad knife to the second act. Perhaps it's because when the show first premiered, the second act was weaker than it has subsequently become through rewrites. The temptation to toy and tinker with something has got to be strong, but it feels as if this tinkering was for the worse. With the transition between the acts completely lifted, the characters have no time to develop the dissatisfaction which drives all of their decision making in the second act. While these are likely issues that someone with no knowledge of the stage version would take issue with or even notice, I wonder how jarring that shift is for those audience members, because for me, it caused the film to stumble and never regain its footing.
Thankfully Marshall's cast is top notch, and make up for all of his and the script's shortcomings. It's no surprise at this point to say that Meryl Streep is outstanding, but there is truly nothing the woman cannot do. Her two big showstopping numbers are as gorgeously realized as a fan of the show could hope, and she infuses her character with the right amount of ethos as to keep her from being a total monster. Emily Blunt is also terrific as The Baker's Wife, and sells all of her character's many twists and turns with genuine emotion. The two child actors, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, are also incredibly good, and I didn't miss for a moment the fact that their roles are almost always played by adults onstage.
Johnny Depp, however, is so horrifically out of place in this film as to be laughably bad. His transition from one of the most respected actors of his generation into the guy whose entire character is based around what kind of hat he wears has been sad to watch. Here, he cranks to somewhat subdued sexual undertones of his number "Hello Little Girl" up to 11, making the fact that Red Riding Hood is played by a child all the more disturbing. I find myself coming back to the scene from Stripes where Bill Murray's girlfriend tells him "It's just not that cute anymore." I am truly beginning to wonder if he'll ever rebound.
My biggest criticism with Marshall's direction is that the film fails to strike a solid tone. Some moments are played incredibly grounded and honest and real and most of those involve Streep or Blunt. Other moments, such as the very funny but very out of place staging of "Agony," are so wildly theatrical and artificial that they feel wholly out of place. The whole film bounces back and forth between these two tones, and it only gets worse in the second half. The film becomes literally very dark, as in you can't really see what's happening, and I began to wonder if Marshall understands the difference between tonally dark and physically dark. This is a problem that has long haunted Marshall as a director, and one that you're either on board for or fed up with.
Overall, Into the Woods is a solidly enjoyable film that retains much of the charm of its source material without being a total mockery of it. Had it been PG-13, twenty minutes longer, and more even in tone, it could have really been something. Instead it feels like yet another opportunity to turn an acquired taste like Sondheim into a universally acceptable product that everyone can get behind. That's sort of Disney's stock in trade, though, so it's ultimately unsurprising. Thankfully there are enough really good moments and really good performances to make the whole thing just that much better than it could have been, but it can't even begin to hold a candle to the original. Having come out on the other side of it, I keep going back to a moment when you can hear a tune from another Sondheim musical playing faintly in the background, which made me happy because I'm a geek, but made me scared that they may continue making film adaptations of his work that are nothing more than passable.
GO Rating: 3/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]