Careful the Change You Make: A Review of ‘Into the Woods’

Into the Woods

Let me start saying that, against all signs pointing to the contrary, Walt Disney Pictures’ adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is not a bad movie. Now, you might think that Sondheim being one of the best musical theater composers that ever lived, and this being one of his most popular works, that it wouldn’t be hard for his material to survive the hands of the corporate suits over at Disney, but then again, director Rob Marshall has made decisions varying from questionable to appalling when adapting Broadway musicals to the big screen, of which he has done two: Chicago and Nine,  neither of which are particularly good movies, but they’re also not horrendous.

Why, then, did I think Into the Woods would be the exception? Well, the things I feared would make Into the Woods bad are still in the final movie. There is, for starters, Johnny Depp’s painfully uninspired interpretation of the Big Bad Wolf as a creepy dude in a zoot suit. The performance is as stupid as all the promotional images make it seem, and even though Marshall has tried to justify it on interviews saying it was inspired by Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hoodthat’s no excuse for such poor decision making (which according to costume designer Colleen Atwood, came from Depp himself, which… doesn’t surprise me). There is also the visual style of the movie, which is as far from anything you could call original as can be.

This is a good moment, for those who are not familiar with the material, to explain that Into the Woods was originally a stage musical through which Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, inspired by Bruno Bettelheim’s amazing book The Uses of Enchantment, deconstructed the meaning and value fairy tales have in our culture. The show follows characters such as Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) as they get, and then question, their “happy ever afters”. So it’s especially disappointing that Into the Woods looks like exactly every other modern “re-imagining” of fairy tales characters that we’ve seen in recent years. Hell, some of them, like Mirror Mirroractually have much more interesting looks than Into the Woods. 

Actually, the most disappointing thing is not that Into the Woods looks too much like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Huntersbut that the movie doesn’t make any kind of comment about its look, which would have actually been a very interesting choice. Because like I said above, this is a DECONSTRUCTION of fairy tales, and even though some of the most theatrical elements of Into the Woods (the stage musical) made me think that adapting it into the big screen wasn’t a great idea, now I think a very meta-filmic version of Into the Woods could have been one of the best movies of the year.

Curiously enough, it’s one of the musical numbers in this flawed adaptation that makes me think this, because when Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen (who play Cinderella and Rapunzel’s Princes respectively) start ripping their shirts off while singing “Agony” atop of waterfall, the movie isn’t just translating a musical number from the stage to the screen, but it is turning it into a moving cover of a Romance novel, and suddenly, we are using film to actually add meaning to Sondheim’s music. A movie full of such thoughtful choices would have been amazing, but alas, such a thing was too much to ask from Rob Marshall, and none of the other numbers of the movie reach that level (the closest thing is a pretty ingenious and lovely staging of “On the Steps of the Palace”).

But the truth is that despite all those flaws and missed opportunities, most of Into the Woods (which is to say the part adapted from the musical’s first act), is a pretty solid watch thanks in no small part to a lovely cast. James Corden and Emily Blunt are very funny and touching as the Baker and his Wife, Anna Kendrick is lovely as Cinderella, and Meryl Streep proves yet again that she’s a fantastic singer as The Witch. The only weak link in the ensemble is Johnny Depp’s Wolf, but he is in so little of the movie that it doesn’t really matter that much, although it does make me wish that young Lilla Crawford, who delivers some awesome deadpan moments as Little Red Riding Hood, would have had a better scene partner to work with.

As for Marshall’s direction, even if most of it isn’t particularly inspired, most of it is appropriately far from flashy, with fewer unnecessary rapid-fire, nonsensical cuts than Chicago and fewer questionable staging choices than Nine. I think the fact that there is essentially no dance numbers in this musical is the key to why Into the Woods ends up being Marshall’s best movie yet. I know this is puzzling considering the fact that he started his career as a choreographer, but a fool’s errand could be defined as watching one of the dance numbers in Nine and trying to find any kind of spacial coherence in them.

The real problems of Into the Woods come once the movie arrives at the source material’s second act, once the characters start to become unhappy with their happy ever afters. The changes made to the show’s second half had been subject to a lot of speculation for a while now, or at least, ever since Sondheim himself gave a couple interviews in which he revealed some of the changes Disney was considering in order to make the movie a little less dark/family friendly. This is understandable coming from as “wholesome” a company as Disney, but while some of the songs cut from the second half (such as the reprise of “Agony”) are irritating but understandable, most of them are very puzzling.

Without getting into too many spoilers, let me say that cutting “No More” greatly diminishes the Baker’s character arc, which is still there but not nearly as potently as in the original show. Really it’s Emily Blunt that ends up bringing the necessary pathos to the Baker’s role in the film’s last few minutes. But if we’re talking about cuts that diminish the emotional impact, then we must talk about the changes made to Rapunzel’s story. The iconic “Witch’s Lament” is still there, but the way it plays out in the movie it’s just a lovely song for Meryl Streep to sing, while t is one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the show.

The misunderstanding of what makes the musical so emotionally effective is ultimately what keeps Into the Woods from dazzling. It’s not quite as jarring as the occasional local production of the show that decides to cut out the supposedly depressing second act entirely, but it’s somewhere close. When you finish watching the Into the Woods musical, you feel strange, and yes, a little sad. It’s the ultimate “be careful what you wish for” story, and the final stroke of genius comes in the show’s “Children Will Listen” finale, which is relegated to the movie’s end credits (presumably because it’s a very theatrical number), and if it has any emotional impact, it’s very different from the one it has in the original show. Case in point, the absolute genius last words of the show, turn from the most piercing period to the story that you could have imagined into just a fun detail. I guess that sums it up. As a funny detail, those words still look good, but what is a funny detail worth when it was once the most crucial piece of an amazing puzzle?

Grade: 6 out of 10

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