One thing that I admire and hate about a Japanese audience in a movie theater is that they stay until a piece COMPLETELY ends. No, not the end of the story, but the end of the rolling credits. They want everything they paid for. They want the music that plays. They want the names on the screen. They want to see if there is a hidden Easter egg at the end. They want it all.
Such was the case for Disney’s recent stage-to-screen adaptation of “Into the Woods.” Directed by (Chicago and Nine fame) Rob Marshall, the film is based on Sondheim and Lapine’s beloved musical of the same name, giving a spin on the classic fairy tale characters we all know and love.
(NOTE FROM EDITOR: possible spoilers. I didn’t bother reading through… I’m a great editor)
The plot involves a witch *from next door* (Meryl Streep), who seeks a child-longing baker couple (James Corden, Emily Blunt) to fetch four objects that (if fetched by three midnights), will make the couple fertile and restore the Witch’s beauty. Meanwhile, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wishes to go to the royal ball, Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell a dry cow, and Red Riding hood (Lila Crawford) to bring bread to her sick Granny (Anette Crosbie). So, they all set for the woods to peruse their wishes. They throw in a wolf (Johnny Depp), some princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen), a maiden in a tower (Mackenzie Mauzy), and a talking tree (Joanna Riding) along the way. They get what they wish, and happy ever aft… Oh yes, I forgot. They get what they wish for, but for a certain price. You see the second half of the film involves a Giant woman (Frances de la Tour) who seeks vengeance against the little boy who was responsible for her husband’s death. This forces the characters to reflect on their actions, and learn a lesson.
The film has its fatal flaws. The biggest is it’s second half. We see happiness and ever afters, and then a giant comes out of no where too soon. This makes the film a yawn-fest for most of the remainder of the film. You see, the second half works on stage, because there is an intermission before the giant comes. The intermission represents the passing of time, and happiness. As the second act begins, we see what they’ve become after they got what they wished for. In the film, however, it happens much too hurriedly, making us dread the second half, instead of love. Too bad for Into the Woods, that intermissions are out of style now in films. If it was back in the Marry Poppins, Chitty-Bang era, they’ve could’ve used advantage of the popular intermission.
The flaws, however, aren’t so fatal because of one actress. That actress is Meryl Streep. She portrays the witch so beautifully and passionately, that she almost erases memories of Bernadette Peters. I said ALMOST. I mean, nothing can beat Bernadette. Meryl Streep’s witch is so captivating, that whenever you see her on screen, you are hooked. And oh boy, her Last Midnight is haunting.
I must also give credit to Anna Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace”, and having the capability of being able to sing AND act at the same time. And wow, her belt at the end was magnificent.
So can be said about the two younger actors in the show; Daniel Huttlestone and Lila Crawford. But after hearing Lila Crawford in Annie, I wanted her to belt something in the show. C’mon Stephen Sondheim, you could’ve given Little Red an anthem!
The direction given by Rob Marshall, explores theatricality in film. For musical numbers such as “I Know Things Now”, he creates the wolf’s stomach out of purple sheets and silhouettes. For “On the Steps of the Palace”, he makes Cinderella ponder on for three minutes, while the prince stays behind, with flames from torches moving ever so slowly. He also explores action, subtly. He does not have camera’s flashing around, gunshots, or explosions in the air. The most action you’ll see are birds pecking out the Giant Woman’s eyes. Another example is in Jack’s epic “Giants in the Sky”, where Jack simulates climbing a beanstalk, by climbing a tree. Such directional choices make the film much more intriguing than showing the audience every bit of real action.
Though Into the Woods has “Disney-fied” some elements from the stage, it mostly stays true to the material, but has deducted something that doesn’t make the film as ravishing as the stage production.
I felt this when hearing the final shrill of the (what? 50 piece?) orchestra, when the white writing disappeared from the screen. And though this could be my nostalgia for the stage production speaking, I thought that the film was a bit too big. The stage production is almost always done on one singular set, and seeing the woods in the film’s glorious huge set, made the characters seem to have little to no relationship with each other. Another part of this could be the deduction of the narrator. By having the narrator, the story moved mechanically and with precision for the first act and half of the second. In the second, they discover the narrator, and gives him to the giant. This makes them become more like “real” human beings, making decisions of their own, and not getting controlled by narration. In the film, you couldn’t see as much change for the characters.
But in the end, “Into the Woods” is one of those shows that can only work on the stage. And Marshall & crew did the best they could probably do with the material, so three cheers to them+Disney. Also, thank whoever decided to not create the planned (awful sounding) 1990’s adaptation. How do I know that it sounds awful? Well, listen to the demo-track of it, and you’ll see why.
If you want to be thrilled by the film, I suggest not watching the taped original Broadway production first, but after, so that you won’t be like me, and compare that production to the film.