Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is one of those great rarities of the stage: an introspective musical. There aren’t any big song-and-dance numbers with complex choreography and tons of extras. Catchy melodies are practically de-emphasized in favor of intricate wordplay and multi-part harmonies. Halfway through the story takes a massive tonal shift from comedy to tragedy (in the classical sense) that alienates many viewers. Into the Woods is almost more operetta than opera; a musical that is meant to be listened to and not just heard.
And so director Rob Marshall was faced with the daunting task of bringing one of Sondheim’s most beloved and challenging musicals to the screen. And to his credit, his film Into the Woods manages to keep Sondheim’s story, music, and themes largely intact. The film follows a menagerie of characters from the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales as they seek to fulfill their wishes. A Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) are tasked by the Witch who “lives next door” (Meryl Streep) to collect four ingredients in three days for a potion that will allow her to break the curse that keeps them childless: the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.
At the same time other familiar characters begin their own journeys. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) must deliver a basket of food to her “poor old granny in the woods.” Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) must go into town and sell his best friend, a cow named Milky White, for no
more less than five pounds. A handsome Prince (Billy Magnussen) discovers a lovely young maiden named Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) living high atop a tower with no doors who must lower her gorgeous, corn-yellow hair so visitors may climb up to her window. And finally, the miserable Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is given a wondrous gown and slippers by the ghost of her dead mother (Joanna Riding) so she may attend the royal ball being held by another dashing Prince (Chris Pine). It bears mentioning that this is the Brothers Grimm Cinderella, not the Disney Princess one. Not only do her dastardly step-sisters meet gruesome ends, but her slippers are made of rich gold cloth, not glass.
So into the Woods they go, the word “woods” being capitalized purposefully. For the Woods are both a place in the literal sense and as a concept; they represent the trials and tribulations of life itself. Everything you could need is in the Woods, so long as you stay on the Path, that is. But there are oh so many strange distractions, charming strangers, and beautiful meadows filled with beautiful flowers just off to the side. The sun won’t be going down for hours, after all. So what harm is there in stepping off the path, just for a moment?
Certain modifications were made to the plot of Sondheim’s musical: the Baker’s Wife and Cinderella’s Prince passionately embrace but are not specifically shown to have had a sexual affair (although these things need not be explicit in fairy tales…); the Narrator is never killed; and Rapunzel survives and exits stage left with her Prince (who never finds another paramour). This last modification was probably made not because Disney was afraid of killing off a major character, but because they have their own Rapunzel with a multi-million dollar franchise behind her. If Sondheim’s version had originally included and executed the Snow Queen, it isn’t hard to imagine that a similar “plot adjustment” would have taken place for the film.
The heart and soul of Into the Woods is the last act, where a rampaging giantess kills off a good part of the cast after they get their Happy Endings. The surviving cast members must band together and reforge new lives for themselves now that their families are gone and the Paths through the Woods have been destroyed. Many find this turn of events depressing, but in truth it is essential. If the first act is the Fairy Tale, the second is the Deconstruction. My favorite line in the entire musical is “Sometimes people leave you/halfway through the Wood/Others may deceive you/You decide what’s good/You decide alone/But no one is alone.” Life doesn’t have Happy Endings and They All Lived Happily Ever Afters. Friends and family come and go. And sometimes the Path disappears entirely. But you never have to go through the Woods alone. There is always an ending. And if you’re lucky and are kind, you might get through the Woods stronger, braver, and wiser.
But here is one of the film’s two major problems: the crucial second act isn’t paced well and its thoughtful introspection becomes tedious. On stage, the audience knows for a fact that the Happy Ending isn’t the actual ending because it takes place at the close of Act One. The growth of the second beanstalk at the curtain close signals that all is not well in the kingdom and that new trials are about to begin. So the audience has the intermission (and hopefully a bathroom break) to brace themselves for what comes next. In the film, the transition takes place well over an hour into the run-time. So instead of seeming like an Act Two, the second part feels like an overbearing epilogue that overstays its welcome. I could notice the audience members seated next to me shifting and twitching in their seats as they lost more and more patience for the damn thing to finally end.
The second major problem with Into the Woods is a failure to transition the visual language of the theater into the visual language of the cinema. Instead of utilizing camera angles, creative editing, and cutaways to compliment the essentially conversational nature of the songs with a gripping visual element, Marshall makes the woeful mistake of frequently keeping his actors in medium to long shots as they drift back and forth through the scenery. Call it for what it is: choreographed walking. This is most egregiously demonstrated in the Witch’s first encounter with the Baker and his Wife, where Streep menacingly walks through their house, menacingly walks across their living room, and, in moments of great passion, menacingly walks in between the shocked couple, while delivering her lines. Jack’s central number “Giants in the Sky” is similarly blocked: we get to watch Huttlestone climb a tree, climb its branches, and then jump down as a befuddled Corden looks on in silence. Even the brief shots of Jack’s journey to the land of the giants are comprised of his slowly climbing up and down the beanstalk. The only difference is that in the forest he is climbing up a real tree. In the cutaways he is climbing a terrible CGI monstrosity. And in one of the film’s most bizarre creative choices, Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace” is literally delivered on the steps of the palace as a frantic Chris Pine hangs frozen in time behind her. And how is this scene shot? With Cinderella walking back and forth, sitting down and standing up, and emphatically putting her head on her arms over and over again as the music drones on.
The music is fine; none of the performances are found lacking, although few stand out (Corden and Pine being the obvious show-stealers). It may have just been my theater, but Streep was so drowned out by the music in “Last Midnight” that I couldn’t hear a word she said. Inexplicably, neither of the two original songs Sondheim composed for the movie were included, leaving the obvious question of why they even bothered to hire him in the first place. So ultimately what we have is a subpar movie of a first-rate musical with decent performances strained by uninspired direction. Fans of the musical should do what all good theater people do when the latest production of their favorite play gets terrible reviews: listen to the original soundtrack for the umpteenth time and patiently wait for the next revival.