Into the woods and down the dell/
The path is straight, I know it well/
Into the woods and who can tell/
What’s waiting on the journey?
These lyrics from Into the Woods, by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, summed up my attitude towards the film version of my childhood favorite musical. I grew up watching the original on a worn VHS tape. It was one of my first introductions to musical theater.
For those unfamiliar with its premise, Into the Woods is a fairytale mash-up about a childless Baker and his Wife, their quest to reverse the Witch’s curse that keeps them barren, and their consequent encounters with beanstalk-climbing Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Cinderella, who’ve also gone into the woods to obtain their wishes. If the first half of the musical is about wish fulfillment, then the second act warns that happy endings come at a price. The musical is structured so that Act II mirrors and foils Act I. Even the opening and closing numbers of each act–and a delightful duet and its reprise–serve as counterbalances for one another.
A solid musical with a funny book and a fantastic score, it’s hard to mess up Into the Woods. I’m partial to the original Broadway cast myself, but I’ve seen amateur productions still entertain. That said, I was curious what kind of movie magic director Rob Marshall would bring to Into the Woods on film. From uncomfortably close close-ups (à la Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables) to innovative camera angles to flashbacks, montages, special effects, and who knows what else, there’s a lot of cinematic tricks to play with.
To Marshall’s credit, some of his ideas worked splendidly, like the clever editing during Jack’s big song, Giants in the Sky, which helped to reenact his sky-bound adventures. And the juxtaposition of a banished Rapunzel singing herself to sleep while camped out in a swamp crawling with venomous snakes was a hilarious visual gag. Also, a nice touch: playing a snippet from another Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music, as the background music at the festival. Less successful were Cinderella’s creepy CGI’ed birds; the vertigo-inducing tracking shots during the Witch’s song, Stay With Me, which took attention away from an emoting Meryl Streep; the decision to show the Giant on screen; and the literal interpretation of the song, I Know Things Now, which depicted Little Red being digested by the Wolf in what looked like an esophagus from the Twilight Zone.
But first, a quick word about the singing because it is a musical: all the actors should be proud of their musical performances. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife has a lovely voice and the two teens playing Red and Jack were spot on. Even Johnny Depp as the Wolf, who sort of Johnny Depp’ed his way through his number did a bland but passable job. The problem is, that’s like complimenting the backup hitters for making a decent play when the star sluggers could have hit those songs out of the ballpark if only they’d been drafted.
No, Into the Woods‘ biggest problem is not the singing; it’s the pacing. Since the musical clocks in at two hours and forty minutes with intermission, cuts were necessary. Even so, the movie ran for 125 minutes, and still dragged during what constituted Act I. Partly to blame was the tempo; the punctuated quarter note chord motif that runs like an undercurrent throughout the Prologue bounced with less energy than usual.
More egregious was the blatant lack of humor. Despite its grim body count and serious themes, Woods is an uproariously funny show. In the original Broadway production, nearly every line gets a big reaction from the audience. In what may be one of its wittiest moments, the Baker’s Wife turns to the audience and sings, “this is ridiculous/what am I doing here? I’m in the wrong story!” This wry self-awareness was sorely missing from the film, which took itself so seriously. Comedic scenes, like Cinderella’s ability to talk to birds or Rapunzel’s restoration of her blinded Prince’s vision via her tears, were played straight rather than for laughs or deadpanned.
But what really bogged Woods down was the amount of exposition added to the film, starting with a “blue moon” conceit justifying why our protagonists needed to journey into the woods on this precise occasion and not, say, two weeks later. Also, screenwriter James Lapine unfortunately felt the need to spill the beans about several fun twists down the road. The Witch–in her role as Captain Obvious–explained all the important plot points upfront, including her exact motives for helping the Baker and his Wife and why she needed their help at all. (I can’t touch the ingredients, she reminds us every time she pops up. “It’s against the rules,” she adds, in a line written just for the film.) It’s as if the writers were afraid that because characters were on screen singing, audiences would suddenly lose their ability to follow the storyline, and therefore need everything spelled out for them. Unfortunately, this meant there weren’t very many surprises along the way, or payoffs from putting together clues in their natural progression.
If the first act dragged, then the second act felt rushed. In the musical, Act II picks up some time after the events of Act I with a glimpse of our characters’ new lives–“despite some minor inconveniences, they were all quite happy”–before everything begins to unravel. In the film, events are squeezed into tight succession so that characters slingshot from the pinnacle of happiness–the curse is broken; the Baker’s Wife conceives and gives birth to a baby; Cinderella and her Prince are reunited and wed–to grim catastrophe in practically no time at all. In fact, the Giant shows up while everyone is at the castle celebrating Cinderella’s nuptials, sending them pell-mell back into the woods. At which point, the just-married Cinderella’s Prince, in what feels like an 180 degree turn (since his skirt-chasing song gets cut), is revealed to be an insatiable womanizer; a main character abruptly dies (this death also occurs in the musical, but was preceded by three others to incrementally raise the stakes and the tension); the Baker doubts his ability to raise his child and then, in another quick 180 degree spin, miraculously overcomes his grief and despair without ever having to work out his emotions through song (the heartfelt No More, also sadly cut). But by leaving out the moral quandaries and inner struggles that characters go through for the sake of time, Into the Woods is reduced to a straightforward story about some good guys against a vengeful Giant. When it comes time to sing about the introspective truths they’ve realized about themselves, about community, and about humanity, their epiphanies do not seem as precious or as hard won.
All in all, I got the sense that the film version was afraid to go all-in. Just as the film wasn’t funny or gory enough, the protagonists weren’t allowed to be anything less than likable or respectable. Rapunzel doesn’t go mad. The Steward doesn’t fatally beam Jack’s Mother over the head to shut her up; instead, he accidentally shoves her too hard. Jack is no longer a foolish young man trying to escape from under his mother’s thumb, but an adorably earnest little urchin. The Baker’s insecurities about parenthood are a blamed on his absentee father, not his own shortcomings. His Wife is an unwilling participant to those Moments in the Woods; it’s no longer a consensual decision. The Witch is given so much backstory, she starts off as a sympathetic character and has nowhere to grow. Characters come across as victims, no one is responsible for their actions. The end result is a product that’s neither here nor there. “You’re not good/you’re not bad/you’re just nice,” the Witch accuses, in The Last Midnight, and that describes the film perfectly.