Into the Woods (film)

  • Into the Woods (film)1/5/15 (Mon)

Into the Woods has never been my favorite Sondheim show for various reasons, though I seem to be in the minority among musical fans. Still, I was curious to see what Hollywood had done with it. 

It turned out to be very faithful to the original for the most part, perhaps unavoidably given the intricately linked stories, though it was smart enough to eliminate the narrator. The big songs are all there in at least abridged versions, and the director did a nice job of transitioning in and out of song.

Some of the changes were just dumb. The ugly witch went on about how her daughter Rapunzel was ashamed of her, implying that she was seeking the beauty potion to win her daughter over. But that came off as the usual psycho-babble – couldn’t she just want the potion for her own vanity? It also removes the suspense of what the potion is for. The sharp shift in scene after her transformation back to a beautiful woman strangely then failed to allow her to show emotion after the long-sought goal was in hand. What a waste.

In another case, Cinderella’s slipper got stuck in tar, which was unimaginative compared to the stage show, where she leaves it behind on purpose. (I admit I never liked that display of womanly wiles; the original Grimm story is not about feminine weakness, but about Cinderella’s failure to realize that it was her inner beauty, not the tiara and gown, that attracted the prince. Still, the stage variation was at least interesting, while the film didn’t even pass that low hurdle.) Johnny Depp was fine as the wolf, but what was with the costume?? I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be a wolf or just a wolfish guy; this was not a good choice. Also, the mysterious man was revealed upfront as the baker’s father, again sacrificing the suspense element.

I’m sure the music and lyrics must be brilliant and all that, but I won’t be running to buy the soundtrack. (Overheard conversation during the intermission of the original Broadway run: “How do you like the songs?” “I don’t know; there hasn’t been one yet.”) The lyrics are largely a flashy sequence of puns and clever phrases. This was virtuosic (as in the amazing “It’s Your Fault” and “Agony”), but a little of that goes a long way. The treacly ballads were even worse, hammering the point home to exhaustion (“Witches can be right/Witches can be good/You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good” – yuck).

I wondered if the show might be better without songs at all, though even that wouldn’t solve the sudden and unconvincing shift in tone in the book’s second half. Nothing has suggested the prince is the straying type, for instance, until he seduces the baker’s wife, making it seem a gratuitous attempt to be sour. It’s not clear in any case why others have to die for Jack’s sins. I still feel the show would be better if halted after the first act. The show wants to punish Jack for having stolen the giant’s property, ultimately leading to his death, thus teaching kids that actions have consequences. Here’s how I would explain it to kids: the giant was terrorizing the town, and the rumor was that he got his power from golden eggs. When Jack climbed the beanstalk, he happened upon the goose with the gold and bravely grabbed it in order to weaken the giant. The giant chases him but is killed in the process. Jack is a hero, and everyone lives happily ever after. See? The evil giant dies, and the righteous and courageous live. Seems a much nicer lesson for kids than this one.

In any case, the baker struck the right tone as timid but loving; the wife and Cinderella both managed a good balance of humor and seriousness; Meryl Streep could have used more humor (too bad they took away her chance to preen after her beauty makeover, which she would have reveled in); Christine Baranski was hilarious as usual as the evil stepmother; and Little Red Riding Hood was grating (though that was partly a function of the role). The movie overall was a fair representation of the stage show, for better or worse, and won’t make any converts in either direction.

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