Getting Through the Journey – Thoughts on the Into the Woods film – December 31, 2014

“Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods…”

Into The Woods film

So begins the film adaptation of Into The Woods, written by Stephen Sondheim [music and lyrics] and James Lapine [book], directed by Rob Marshall with a star-studded cast. Into the Woods is among my favorite Sondheim musicals, having seen the 2002 revival production and the 2012 production in Central Park.

[Minor disclaimer: Per usual, a good percentage of this blog will be quasi-rambling musings of my personal opinion of the film adaptation and inevitable comparisons of the stage production.]

When it was first announced that there would be a film adaptation of the show, I was anxious about the transition from stage to screen, as 98% of the more recent film adaptations of musicals were tolerable at best or horribly cast at worst. It’s no big surprise that I prefer to spend my time (and money) watching live theater over movies. There’s (almost) always something wanting when there’s a film adaptation of a musical: either it’s horribly miscast (in my opinion) with (usually young, eye candy) big name movie stars with limited singing abilities or certain aspects of the story and/or songs are shortened, rearranged or omitted to “improve” the overall narrative. That Disney was the studio to produce and distribute the film was worrying: how would Disney, the epitome of happiness and optimism, handle the darker, cynical aspects of this particular Sondheim musical? The point of the latter portion of Into the Woods is to show that “happily ever after” doesn’t necessarily happen: things might not turn out as well as expected.

Nevertheless, when the casting was announced, I was slightly mollified as there were theatre-experienced actors along with big name movie stars, though even with the likes of Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp among the cast, I was still (slightly) worried about their singing competency, especially tackling a Sondheim score. Thankfully, for the most part, I was not disappointed, or at least I wasn’t cringing in my (plush, reclining, leather) seat (a lovely perk found at my local movie theater). My only (minor) quibble about the film cast’s singing was that much of the score was sung within one (middle C) octave, the tempo at times seemed slower and the key was lowered, most likely to accommodate the film actors’ singing abilities. Other (quasi-minor) quibbles are the slight story changes, song omissions, and cut verses: while I understand that a film adaptation is (by definition) an adaptation and therefore can’t and shouldn’t be exactly the same as the original source material, some of the poignancy of the aforementioned darker, cynical aspects of the story is lost or watered down (whether or not that’s the doing of the Disney execs to lighten a quasi-dark story).

A quasi-short rundown of general observations are as follows:

[SPOILER ALERT if you have not seen the film adaptation or do not know the musical’s plot.]      

Having the Baker (James Corden) serve as the Narrator kinda makes sense, as he ends up telling the tale to his son, but then again, as he’s one of the characters within the overall story, he would not be able to narrate aspects of the story of which he is not present or have any knowledge. Moreover, the near removal of the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s Father), and having the song “No More” (one of my favorite songs) appear as incidental score (though the instrumental interlude is gorgeous albeit shortened) is a shame, as the character and song adds to the poignancy of the Baker’s story and serves as a better motivation to break the cycle his father started. That being said, James Corden is amazing in portraying the different facets of the Baker’s personality and his rapport with his wife (Emily Blunt) is fantastic.

Meryl Streep is a fantastic Witch, but she’s no Bernadette Peters. Then again, no one is.

While the Witch’s (over)protectiveness of Rapunzel is highlighted in the film with the beautifully sung “Stay With Me”, the (subtle, probably Disney-decreed) change to let Rapunzel ride off into the sunset and into safety with her Prince, and not have her fall victim to the Giantess’ rampage diminishes the Witch’s motivations to find Jack in order to hand him over to the Giantess, and her vehemence when she turns on Cinderella, The Baker, Little Red and Jack in “Last Midnight”. To allow only Rapunzel to (presumably) live “happily ever after” while all the other characters suffer and struggle makes no sense whatsoever.

As the two Princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s performance of “Agony” is ridiculously over the top and perfectly encapsulates their superficial personalities in their lament in pursuing the unobtainable (respectively Cinderella and Rapunzel). However, the absence of the second “Agony” duet undermines their shallowness and (seemingly) ingrained pursuit of the unobtainable. Though Cinderella’s Prince still strays (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”), Rapunzel’s Prince remains the perfect Prince Charming, which seems contrary to the point of the latter part of the film.

While there have been reviews stating that Little Red (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were cast too young, for once (!) I disagree – they look the right age, and act their age accordingly, especially in the scene where Little Red dares Jack to go back up the beanstalk to steal the harp. Their youth is a kind of counterbalance to Cinderella and The Baker, the two adults remaining to battle the Giantess, and act as a kind of mirror to reflect the situation in which they find themselves.

Hearing this Sondheim score with a full orchestra is amazing, and I enjoyed the brief insertions of two melodies from “A Little Night Music” (it took me a few seconds to recognize them). The end credits instrumentals of “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” were glorious.

Overall, I rather enjoyed this film adaptation, despite the aforementioned (quasi-Disneyified) changes. The film has gotten critical acclaim and has done rather well at the box office. I recommend seeing it, and afterwards going to find the DVD of the stage production of the original Broadway cast that was (legally) filmed and (legally) distributed to compare and contrast the differences.

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