DF Considers Into the Woods On Film… And On Stage

5F7CE9F0-ADE3-EBCE-E91D5A7F6AD5B801“Slotted spoons don’t hold much soup.”
“The prettier the flower, the farther from the path.”
“Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.”

To these Into the Woods aphorisms, I would add:

The intersection of childlike hopefulness and middle-aged regret
is not easy to traverse.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

Before launching into the film of Into the Woods, I should in fairness probably point out that I’m not one of the show’s biggest fans. I saw the original Broadway production in previews. A few years earlier, I had been dazzled and moved by Sunday in the Park with George, the previous Stephen Sondheim / James Lapine collaboration. I hoped for a similar sense of revelation, but it was not to be.

To me, Into the Woods was chaotic and inchoate. Bernadette Peters wandered around like a star in search of a vehicle, and I sympathized. (Material added later helped flesh out the role.) The show felt like a collision course of ideas – some clever, others less so, but few of them really developed. The fusion of fairy tales made me hope for Bettelheimian insights, but the execution was mostly jokey and confusing. The finale was a medley of platitudes.

More damagingly, the  show’s shifting perspective from youth to battered experience – such an intriguing concept – didn’t really come together. Sondheim’s lyrics can capture many things, but naïveté isn’t one them. On the other hand, perhaps to compensate, James Lapine’s book – and, even more, his overbusy, overdesigned production – laid on the whimsy with a trowel.

I’ve seen many productions since. I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the music and lyrics. Ultimately, though, Into the Woods may not be a show for me.

Into the Woods Witches -- Meryl Streep on film, Bernadette Peters on stage

Into the Woods Witches — Meryl Streep on film, Bernadette Peters on stage

I say all this because it may help explain my reaction to the movie, which I thought was really good – better than anybody could have expected. The show’s hardcore fans may feel betrayed by what isn’t there, but in my case, I probably enjoyed Into the Woods on film more than I ever have before. At the same time – and I’ll admit this sounds perverse, given what I’ve just written – I missed the original.

Let’s start with the good things. What director Rob Marshall has done – maybe for the first time ever – is to find a consistent, cohesive visual style and tone. This Into the Woods is a fairy tale, pure and simple. It feels like one, and it certainly looks like one (the Disney people are, after all, pretty familiar with this sort of thing).

And Marshall has achieved it without sacrificing the more serious themes, which is more than admirable – I’d say it’s astonishing. Of course, there are trade-offs. I doubt movie audiences will understand how much Little Red’s “I Know Things Now,” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky,” are about sexual awakening (and casting two obviously pre-pubescent actors further neuters this theme). But most of the time, this Into the Woods is Into the Woods.

Likewise, the musical score is more fully realized than I expected. I’m cynical enough to think that much auto-tuning and other post-production studio tweaks were employed, but whatever it took, the end result is a lushly beautiful and quite well-sung performance of nearly all of the score. I wonder if Sondheim’s comments to the press about cuts were deliberately designed to make us fear the worst, so that in the end we’re so relieved? In any event, the only song I truly regret losing is “No More,” but I also think it wouldn’t have suited the Baker of James Cordon, who is a gifted comic, but a more limited singer and actor.

Emily Blount and James Cordon in Into the Woods

Emily Blunt and James Cordon in Into the Woods

Still, Cordon scores points in his scenes, and he’s delightfully paired with Emily Blunt, a charming Baker’s Wife. The rest of the cast – especially Anna Kendrick, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, and Frances de la Tour – are good to excellent.

There are missteps, too. Johnny Depp should be perfect as the Wolf, but it doesn’t work. The pimp costume he wears isn’t funny, and also isn’t right for the movie’s more literal take on the story. More generally, Depp’s performance just doesn’t come into focus. (I’m guessing he spent almost no time on the set – he certainly doesn’t feel like part of an ensemble.) Lilla Crawford sings well as Little Red, but there’s no real acting, and much the same is true for Daniel Huttelstone as Jack. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are genial but not very prince-like Princes.

And of course, there’s Meryl Streep as the Witch. What to say? She’s marvelous in “Stay with Me,” and many of her individual moments and line readings are terrific. But she botches the rap portion of her entrance (it’s too slow, the rhythms aren’t punctuated, and it’s broken up into sections that defeat the flow). On balance, I enjoyed Streep – but I also came away with newfound respect for Bernadette Peters’s performance, which I may have undervalued when I saw it first.

In fact, that’s true for the whole of Into the Woods on stage. As I said, at the time, I felt that Lapine’s direction didn’t help the show. But nearly 30 years later, and with the recent of experience of seeing the film, there are nuances I can appreciate.

What Lapine’s managed – through his cast especially – was a droll, fascinating layering. Characters seemed simultaneously to be part of a fairy tale and rooted in the contemporary world. It’s hard to explain, but you can see it instantly in the great performances of Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason, who might equally have been the Baker and his Wife – or an affluent married couple from Long Island. (Zien also has an inherently mournful quality that was very touching here.) Peters, too, brought some of this double-edge to the show.

Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason in Into the Woods

Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason in Into the Woods

As good as Marshall’s more straightforward movie is, that bifocal aspect is gone – and I miss it. Could it be that I’m coming around to Into the Woods after all?

5 replies »

  1. It’s interesting to hear a perspective on the film from someone who saw the original production live. I grew up with the American Playhouse production which my father had recorded off public television and which my sister and I watched incessantly. I had some of the same disappointments as you, namely Depp’s wolf and the rhythm of some of the songs. You are quite right about the witches rap which was rather dull and flat in the film. Overall though I found that I missed the nuances I enjoyed as a child, including the mix of naïveté and experience you found unconvincing in the original.

  2. Was curious what your take would be on this film. I was so relieved that it was not another Les Miz, that I may have been less critical than usual. I felt Streep was just miscast. The witch after all is a comic role, and for me Streep is simply not a comic actress. I was amazed at the vocal direction throughout. I was fearing pain. I agree Depp was also miscast, and out to lunch. You can’t even call that phoning it in. I liked the princes, I especially thought Chris Pine, got the satirical elements of the part, buy their parts were cut so that there was no room for development. The reprise of the delightful “Agony” was sorely missing. And of course – being a Disney production, any sense of any sexuality has been completely removed. The wolf is funny AND truly scary. The Baker’s wife does not just kiss the prince, she has sex with him, and without that her demise is even more unjust. A kiss in not a sufficient transgression. And undercuts her song about a “moment” in the woods. Gavroche – I mean Jack, was a great child performer, but the dichotomies you speak about are undermined with casting actual children in the roles. Even more so demoting the narrator to a voice over undermines the “we are teaching you a less” part of the stage show (a la Pippin) which makes it more palatable as a fable, even a fractured one. And also co relegate “Children will Listen” (the show’s biggest hit, as it were) to the closing credits is just wrong.

  3. Brilliant. I boil down the dichotomy of the stage (at least Original Broadway) production of traditional fairy tale infused w/ contemporary Jewish humor. DF says it better here. Bravo. Brilliant (reprise).

  4. Great review(s)! Anya (7) and I have both enjoyed the DVD of the stage version and the Movie version of the show–after seeing the movie we both agreed adamantly that Johnny Depp didn’t cut it as the Wolf, and that we missed Bernadette Peters’ brilliant performance as the ugly, rapping witch.

  5. David – I’m so glad to read that you enjoyed this film. I thought it was terrific as well, and I AM a big fan of the musical itself. I’ve always found it to be profoundly moving, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. I had been really looking forward to seeing the film, hoping not to be disappointed, and by the end, I felt like a kid who’s just been on a great roller-coaster ride – I wanted to go again! While certainly some of the things you point out about Streep’s performance are true, I did think that overall she was splendid, and brought much greater dimension to the role than Peters, whom I like very much in it. To me, though, the real standouts were Kendrick and Blunt, both of whom really brought real humanity to their characters. I thought Magnussen and especially Pine struck just the right note of shallow callowness, and in his last scene, Pine even managed to convey a certain internal sadness that he couldn’t be more than he was, a pretty neat trick. It didn’t hurt, of course, that he looked every bit the dashing, gorgeous prince. And what a treat to have Jack’s mother be a relateable woman, rather than a dotty old hag who looks old enough to be Jack’s grandmother instead. All in all, I thought it was as good an adaptation as anybody could expect.

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