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Into the Woods Loses its Way

January 19, 2015

Into the Woods_movie poster

Disclosure: when it comes to Into the Woods – the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical – I’m an utter nerd. I first saw in onstage in London in 1989, but didn’t truly fall in love with it until I saw the original Broadway version, filmed for TV, with Bernadette Peters as the Witch. While the London production played it straight – perhaps hoping to avoid comparison with pantomimes – the Broadway production was laced with wry Jewish humour reminiscent of The Princess Bride, while imbuing its characters with authentic, deeply affecting humanity.

In case you’re not familiar with the plot: characters from several Grimm fairytales (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel) all simultaneously venture on various quests into the same woods, where their stories become hopelessly entangled. Despite this, they all find their way to a happy ending – at the end of Act I. In Act II, everything unravels as a direct result of the choices the characters have made to get their wishes, with nasty consequences for many concerned.

The musical uses fairytale archetypes to ask serious questions about loyalty, morality, and most of all, about community responsibility versus individual fulfilment. Yet it achieves this with such witty dialogue, lovable characters and sublime songs that the audience never feels hectored.

Knowing that changes would have been made, I entered the new Disney production of Into the Woods with mild apprehension but resolved to keep an open mind, and in many respects I was richly rewarded. The first half of the film captures the piece’s flavour perfectly, both its sparkle and pathos. Meryl Streep was born to play the Witch (is there a part she wasn’t born to play?) but the entire cast is excellent, especially Anna Kendrick as a down-to-earth Cinderella, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s longsuffering mother, Emily Blunt as the savvy but romantic Baker’s Wife, and Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as the conceited, shallow princes. The restrained musical arrangements showcase the beauty of the songs’ complex, plangent harmonies, and the visual style is lavish without being over-the-top.

Where the film falls down is in the all-important second half; it pulls its punches by reducing the number of deaths and softening the violence of the deaths that do occur. In aiming for a PG audience, director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has seriously diluted the very qualities that made the original show so striking: its dark vision, psychological complexity and uncompromising moral landscape.

This is most evident in the relationship between the Baker (James Cordon) and his Wife, characters created by Lapine to link the disparate storylines. Their marriage is the emotional centre of Into the Woods and, in the complete stage production, is a realistically tender but fractious union. The film minimises their squabbling to such an extent that, when the Baker’s Wife strays, her motivations for doing so are almost non-existent. Ironically, in toning down their marital strife, the film ends up endorsing adultery far more strongly than the stage version does.

Another problem is that several crucial songs are missing. Of course, Into the Woods is a very long stage show and cuts had to be made somewhere, but some of the omitted songs (particularly ‘Like Father Like Son’, where the Baker debates whether to abandon his child) contain important turning points for the characters; without the songs, their actions make considerably less sense.

Marshall’s decision to concentrate on the upbeat first half is understandable, but in trying to cater to both child and adult demographics he has created a film that falls short, somewhere between the two. I wanted to love this film, and did love the first half, but ultimately came away feeling unsatisfied. If you want to see the musical in its full glory, watch the original Broadway production instead.

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