LOST IN THE WOODS
By Johnny Pomatto
When I was a child, Stephen Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS was my favorite musical. I believe it remains a favorite for many of my generation. Children are especially attracted to INTO THE WOODS because the world of fairy tales is familiar to them, but the second act, filled with sex and death, makes them feel like they’re watching something mature and a little grown up. But as years wore on, I fell a bit out of love with show. While I still hold certain songs and moments in high regard, it’s toward the bottom of my Sondheim ranking list, and this film adaptation did little to win me back. When word came out that Disney would be making the film, people were worried that they would remove some of the show’s edge, and their fears were not unfounded. I, personally, was worried because Disney tapped Rob Marshall to direct, a man who had initial success with the dance musical “Chicago,” (Marshall’s strong suit), but whose every directorial effort that followed proved to be more disastrous than the last. Marshall’s adaptation of the surreal and underrated musical “Nine” was so dreadful that he should have never been allowed to make another musical film again. But he was, and so here we are.
One of my initial concerns with adapting INTO THE WOODS as a film was how can one translate to film a play that is so incredibly theatrical. Much of the show is presented directly to the audience, much like a simple bedtime story being read to them. I was pleasantly surprised by the opening number of the film, which seamlessly cut between the many characters and their introductions without disrupting the rhythm and flow of the song. For a second, I thought the film might actually work. Moments later, my hopes were squashed when Johnny Depp showed up as the Big Bad Wolf. Now there has been a lot of shade thrown towards Depp’s performance, not just in this film, but the general trajectory of the last decade or so of his career. I’d like to clarify that I thought that as a performer, Depp was perfectly fine as the Wolf in his roughly five minutes of screen time. My problem is more with how the Wolf is dressed. Depp’s costume is not at all a literal depiction of a wolf. He’s wearing a hat, which is probably not far off from what Depp wears on an average Tuesday, as well a jacket and gloves that simulate claws. His most prominent wolf-like feature is a black, stringy mustache, meant to look like whiskers. Is Johnny Depp’s costume bad? Actually no. What’s wrong with this is that he is the only one in the film that looks this way in this fantasy world. I found it more than a little jarring to see such a theatrical depiction of a wolf, only in the next scene to see a boy lead a real live cow by a rope. Why doesn’t the cow get a dance number? A theatrical production of INTO THE WOODS usually comes complete with painted, storybook sets. It’s like watching illustrations come to life. But this film looks far too much like any old little village in 17th century England. The titular woods looks, for the most part, like a basic, run of the mill forest, when I was hoping for twisty trees and glades, the likes of which one would never see outside of the Brothers Grimm. In fact, that abstract, fantastical elements of the story, (beanstalks, talking wolves, giants), pop up so infrequently, that they actually felt out of place when they did appear. I wish the production design and tone of the film truly felt like it was transporting me to another world, but at best it felt like I was being transported back to other half-baked fairy tale films like “Maleficent” and “Jack the Giant Slayer.” A more realistic approach might have been an interesting take on the story, but Marshall needed to stick with that choice consistently.
Not only is some of the magic removed from the story, but much of the actual story is absent as well. At only a 2 hour running time some cuts would be inevitable, considering the last live performance I saw of INTO THE WOODS had the first act running at nearly 2 hours on its own. Some of the cuts Marshall made were welcomed. The time-wasting interstitial songs like “One Midnight Gone” probably should have been cut during previews of the original Broadway production in 1987. Other cuts are more suspicious, and some betray the deeper meanings of the plot entirely. There are rumors that Disney demanded that some of the darker elements be removed from the second act of the show. While these are unconfirmed, they would make a lot of sense. Obviously Disney doesn’t want kids wondering why giants are murdering some of their favorite Disney princesses. While some of these changes can be shrugged off, certain revisions involving the character of Rapunzel, for instance, not only changes her trajectory but also removes motivation and meaning for some of Meryl Streep’s Witch’s actions later in the play. Songs like “Children Will Listen” remain in the film without the story keeping the context of their purpose in tact. Disney’s values also seem to be behind the cutting one of the most memorable songs in the show, the two princes’ reprise of “Agony.” While the first half of the song remains in the film in a very amusing sequence featuring Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson, to cut the reprise is to cut the punchline of the joke, and this keeps the princes more firmly planted in the role of “charming,” rather than revealing their true nature, one that they can’t entirely escape from.
This brings me to what might be the most egregious omission from the film. If I were to describe what the plot of the stage play was, I would say that it’s about fairy tale characters that break out of their roles and start making decisions to change their own story and destiny. In the play, (I don’t consider this a spoiler since it has been entirely removed from the film), this is depicted perfectly with the device of an onstage narrator speaking directly to the audience and telling the stories. In the second act, the characters get so fed up with the narrator shaping their lives that they physically murder him, continuing to the end of the play not knowing their own fates, but discovering it on their own. While a voice only narrator is represented in the film early on, the characters are never aware of him, nor do they rebel against his string pulling. In fact, the characters seem unaware of the trappings of their fates entirely. When Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife sings late in the film “I’m in the wrong story,” it’s the first indication that these characters even have a sense that they are characters in a story and not entirely in control of their happy endings. Suddenly it feels less like we’re actually watching a continuation of these classic fairy tales at all, because the film doesn’t do a very credible job of telling the first parts of the stories at all. The characters too often feel like ordinary people who just happen to have strange names and desires to undo a witch’s spell or go to the prince’s ball.
I’m truly surprised by how my opinions of this film have been so steeped in the minority. Virtually everyone I’ve talked to who has seen this film has really enjoyed it, including my girlfriend, who left the theater singing after sitting next my scowls for two hours. These are also many of the same people who for months have been dreading any changes being made to their beloved musical, and now have suddenly become more forgiving. And perhaps they’re right in doing so. I’ll freely admit that I’m picking apart every detail and overanalyzing how the missing pieces have left the story without much foundation, at least from my perspective. Despite my ramblings, there were things I did enjoy about the film, most notably James Corden’s performance as The Baker, who never gets trapped by the autopilot track of the story and is able to create moments for his character that I’ve never seen before. Emily Blunt is also quite good as The Baker’s Wife and has some wonderful scenes with Corden, although I feel the film never gives the two of them, (or most of the other characters), a chance to slow down and relax into the quieter moments of the show. The short running time of the film isn’t entirely due to the cuts that Rob Marshall made. Almost all the songs are sped up by half a beat or so, and the scenes that do remain in tact are rushed through in order to move the story along as fast as possible. It made the film, (especially the events of the second act which is over and done with in a mere 35 minutes), feel as if it were being shown in fast forward, and whole characters got lost in the process. Cinderella has always been considered to be one of the plum roles in the play, but Anna Kendrick’s performance is reduced to only the character’s most essential plot points, and she’s constantly speeding through them to get to the next one. Lost are some of the subtle nuances of Cinderella’s naïve nerd of a character, but all the bits of step-tending and shoe fittings are in tact, as if there aren’t already enough musicals based on the story of “Cinderella.” Just as one closed on Broadway this past Sunday, another is currently in development, and Disney themselves has another Cinderella film opening in just two months. Kendrick has a beautiful soprano voice but it almost gets lost in the shuffle and I found her character to be one of the most forgettable in the film, through no real fault of her own. This is also true for Meryl Streep, (still a great actress on her worst day), whom I feel phones in her performance and relies on costumes and make-up to shape her character. It wasn’t until her final showstopper of a song, “Last Midnight,” that I found any real joy or energy in her performance at all. But the good news is that this is not our only source for INTO THE WOODS. The film of the original Broadway production starring Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason is still readily available. For New Yorkers, one of the best theater companies in the city, (Fiasco Theater), is currently performing a stripped down, bare bones production unlike any version of the show you’ve ever seen. I’m glad that I saw Rob Marshall’s film once, but I can’t imagine ever revisiting it. There are too many better options available. It’s fun to see some of your favorite A-list actors in these roles, but now we’ve had our fun and we can go back to watching the professionals handle things. Not every film needs to be remade. Not every play needs a film adaptation. Rob Marshall’s INTO THE WOODS is what it is: an amusing but forgettable novelty.