"Into the Woods"

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 C