On Tuesday, December 9th, following a weekend invitation from my friend, Lee, the pair of us braved the lines at Regal Cinemas Pioneer Place downtown for an advanced screening of Disney’s “Into the Woods,” adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s much-loved Broadway show. Somehow, we got in, taking two seats in the middle of the first row. With cricks in our necks and popcorn in hand, we waited for curtain.
This wasn’t the first time I had longed for a Stephen Sondheim movie-musical to be done justice. Tim Burton stole the black humorous soul out of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” back in 2007 by cutting most of its deliciously punning verses and
engendering it with a washed out look the film’s remaining humor could never hope to kaleidoscope out of. Nor was that Burton’s only sin with “Sweeney Todd”—though I may as well blame Hollywood, much good may it do me—for miscasting, as a rule, fine actors (like Timothy Spall, Johnny Depp, and Alan Rickman) in complex and difficult singing roles for which they are often ill-prepared. The lack of singing chops ends up gutting musical adaptions into little more than Ryan Murphy-like Glee clubs, acting interrupted by bad singing or extraneous singing or both.
Nor was justice for Stephen Sondheim the only reason I wished for a good show. Despite its foibles, I like Hollywood’s recent trend of movie-musicals. And while the blame not only goes to Disney for the trend—see Tom Hooper’s sweeping and bombastic “Les Misérables ”; or the critical failure of the 2005 adaption of “The Phantom of the Opera” directed by Schumacher; even Marshall’s own “Chicago”—the trend’s success stems from box office sensations like the “High School Musical” franchise for resurrecting the movie-musical with general audiences.
Yet Sondheim is different stuff altogether: his characters are zany, thorny, rarely clean-and-good people; his themes and conclusions are as challenging as his music. More than that, Sondheim appears untranslatable: his shows have that quality of good art that is perfectly fitted to genre and form while paradoxically defying it, belying even the most well intended attempt to adapt them. It strikes me as choice, surprising, more than a little ironic that Disney should have taken on “Into the Woods” and that Sondheim should have let them.
Here is the film’s description, from Disney:
"Into the Woods" is a modern twist on several of the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters' wishes and quests. This humorous and heartfelt musical follows the classic tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy)-all tied together by an original story involving a baker and his wife (James Corden & Emily Blunt), their wish to begin a family and their interaction with the witch (Meryl Streep) who has put a curse on them.
When the lights dimmed and the reel sputtered to life and color, I was struck immediately—as the camera-panned helicopter-style through realistically rendered clouds—by just what you get and give up in the translation from stage to film. The world was indeed lush, gigantic, teeming; it would be an embedded story, a little less morally ambiguous for being narrated by the Baker directly. And this touch—which I would argue is a larger departure, the largest, from the stage show than first it seems—simplifies the narrative of intergenerational inherited issues down to a single flashback/fantasy while adding a neatly wrapped cinematic bookend to the film's conclusion.
I’ll miss the Baker’s bereft and defiant soliloquy from “No More” (see below), just as I’ll miss the gravitas and grim understanding left out of the Witch’s pain by leaving her daughter, Rapunzel, alive. Yet that’s really all I can say about plot changes. The plot itself is convoluted, but not in an unfriendly way; it is a complex tale spun from multifarious threads meeting in a pleasantly braided center. Audiences unfamiliar with the stage version will have no trouble following along, even if the second act feels slightly rushed.
The script retains much of the zing, the off-humor, the aphorisms of the Broadway show, too. Much of it appears lifted, word-for-word, from the stage show’s book, written by James Lapine—who gratefully returned to the film to help pen the screenplay. This also means that the fairytales themselves are handled with less of a cleaned-up “golden age” Disney treatment: they get to keep their bite, their sense of Old Testament punishment, their moral absolutism which always takes on a bit of moral ambiguity with the widening of the lens—which director, Rob Marshall encourages with impunity. Marshall also obviously knows how to work with an ensemble cast, as nobody here feels underutilized, even with the inevitable loss of some character threads.
Best performances go to Emily Blunt, newcomer Lilla Crawford, and, of course, Meryl Streep. Blunt, whose matter-of-factness balances beautifully with a kind of overarching wistfulness, makes her a good on-screen partner to Corden and an apt bridge for the audience. Crawford’s Red Riding Hood is note-for-note perfect; I kept turning to Lee in conspiratorial giddiness practically whenever she was on screen: she plays it like the feisty little sister you always wish you had. Streep captures the Witch’s otherworldly texture with her usual precision, making her grief believable and her insight perceptive and stinging; Streep’s Witch is less of a matron powerhouse than, say, Bernadette Peter’s, choosing to inject the character with a bit more mania. Yet Streep’s “Last Midnight” is wonderful. Jack, played by Daniel Huttlestone, gives a nice rendition of “Giants in the Sky,” that shouldn’t worry audiences about his character being aged down; I especially loved the clear compatibility between him and on-screen mom, Tracey Ullman. Anna Kendrick seems to star in every Hollywood singing role these days—her Cathy in the film version of “The Last Five Years” next spring is something I’m looking forward to—and her Cinderella is honest here, if a little directionless. This works well in the film’s first half, especially in Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” scene, but she leaves me wanting more strength near the film’s final ballads. Lastly, props must go to the Princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, for causing our audience to break into applause after “Agony” in one of the more wildly entertaining displays of masculine bravado I’ve seen in film, easily this movie’s most hilarious moment.
Atwood’s costume design matches the world’s color and opulence well, but with more than a few nods to the show’s eccentricity, such as with Depp’s Mister Wolf and Jack’s Mother, again played by Ullman. Editing and Sound are handled deftly but safely, placing some of the show’s ensemble numbers in the hands of the orchestra; this seems a typical choice for the modern movie-musical. The Art Department and Marshall’s Special Effects team thankfully did not overdo either; effects like the Witch’s departure, or the scene at Cinderella’s gift-giving tree in the first act, felt like a good balance between spectacle and business-as-usual in a fantasy world. This was a welcome experience compared to the overripe CGI of, say, “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” or even the better comparison of “Maleficent.”
When the lights went back up again, I still wished I had seen James Corden’s Baker singing his tragic ballad, “No More,” if only because it seems like the best answer—not to an actual fairytale—but to the Disneyified versions I had grown up with. It’s all the more poignant when you know, that when the Baker sings these words, his wife is dead already and he (just like his father before him) has left his newborn son in the hands of another so that he might dispense with running away:
Can't we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives, 'Til that happy day arrives, how do you ignore All the witches, all the curses, All the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the good-bye's, The reverses, All the wondering what even worse is still in store!
Of course, we cannot ignore it; of course, nothing ever seems to go as we wish it to, least of all wishes—why I think the Baker decides to return. And that is the crux, really, truly, of why it can be both ironic and fitting that Disney decided to make this film. If what matters is the blame, then there are no shortage of cultural critics willing to point the finger at Disney for sapping its films of any lived-in complexity; yet do we go to films for reflected experience? Or are they the expression of a wish? In any case, I’m reminded of Red Riding Hood’s line, “Nice is different than good.” It is a clean, declarative line that rings true to me; I could hear fellow audience members nodding their agreement. But no less true than the more difficult facts of Red Riding Hood’s story in “Into the Woods,” which is something of a rape warning to young girls, consistent with medieval tellings, scarily and ambiguously (and, yes, humorously) summed up by a second line of dialogue: “Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit not.” To their credit, Disney does not shy away from these realities here, choosing instead to leave them relatively ambiguous, as the film’s penultimate ballad, “No One Is Alone,” reminds us. And the film is better for it.
Further to the point, I want to be careful to point out that criticism of the film—particularly from those familiar with the much beloved show—can rest easier knowing that, from the standpoint of the medium, the changes made are defensible ones. It is harder to break the fourth wall in film, hence leaving off the Narrator and thus the Baker’s ballad (also justifiably done for pacing). On the most-discussed change (i.e.—letting Rapunzel live), it’s pleasantly unclear to me whether Disney chose to let Rapunzel escape because of their prime real estate in “Tangled (2010)” or because her death might distract from the emotional punch of losing the Baker’s Wife at the film’s climax. In any case, it leaves us a cleaner movie. As adaptations go, Marshall’s film is one of the best musical-to-movie adaptions in recent memory. Marshall has been more than careful with this reviewer’s wish, at least.
Lee and I walked away positively pleased with ourselves, partly riding the self-interested joy of holding this advanced screening over our friends heads’ for more than a full three weeks—including the head of an old ex-boyfriend, Jason, who is now performing on Broadway himself. Partly we were pleased because I introduced Lee to the stage play, who in turn took me to see the film—a story coming full circle in its own right. But mostly, Lee and I walked away pleased because the film was just plain good, a story well told, well acted, even (more than most of its kind) well sung. I’ll probably see it again in three weeks.
“Into the Woods” is released worldwide on December 25th, 2014.
Matthew D. Kulisch
Matthew is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at University of San Francisco and holds a BA in English from University of Utah. He has published writing in Switchback, the online literary journal at USF, and with Enormous Rooms, a journal in Salt Lake City; his photography has been published by the online magazine, Spit & Spirit, and in print byGorgeous Freaks, as well as the forthcoming issue of Brooklyn-based magazine, Hypnopompia. He lives in Portland, OR.