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. (more…)