Monday, January 19, 2015

Into the Woods

Into the Woods (the movie)

Okay, Stephen Sondhiem's (lyricist and composer) masterpiece musical here still relates to me personally.  This play got me through being eighteen.  The themes in it kept me going.  Nobody is alone.  The difference between good and bad, right and wrong, nice.  Of how we listen to those we love, but not to the things they think they are telling us, but what we see of them.   If you go back far enough in my blogs, you will find a post about the play.

In Into the Woods fairy tale characters such as (cast as in movie) Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from "Jack and the Beanstalk" must enter the woods in order to complete their stories.  The stories are woven together by the tale of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt).  In order to get the Witch (Meryl Streep) to reverse a curse making it impossible for them to have children, they must gather items associated with various fairy tales, such as one of Cinderella's shoes.  The witch uses these items in a spell.  The fairy tales closely follow grim Grimm brothers, and even taints of the stories before the brothers got a hold of them.

Screenplay and musical by James Lapine and directer by Rob Marshall, I expected this Disney interpretation to fall down.  This is a complex and rich play.  I have to say it was fun to watch.  I'm not going to tell you not to go see it, but I was right about the let down.

Disney's movie lost all the themes.  It was a movie with the occasional song as an afterthought, not a musical.  Songs were cut in favor of an obsession with explaining what was going on rather than letting it happen.  Disney's movie was a fun mish mash of fairy tales, but lost the finer points.

The woods became fraught with large, twisted trees as the characters moved farther in.  It did invoke an idea of differentness than the village.  For some reason the director was obsessed with mud.  The entire place was wet.  The characters came from a very average village in peasant's or king's clothing as was fit.

However the movie lost the true magic of the play and the woods in particular.  The world in the play is a stylized one.  The world is one of fairy tales.  Mud, depressing homes, dreary clothes--reality in general plays no part.  The idea was to have this world change as they entered the woods, but as the woods were also dreary, it gave the movie a dank, dark quality completely inappropriate to a movie made of fairy tales and their undoing.

I had heard that Johnny Depp made for an annoying wolf, but I have to say he was one of my favorite parts.  I used to be a huge Depp fan from the era of such as Ed Wood.  Even the first Pirates of the Caribbean:  Curse of the Black Pearl--he stole the film with a character of his own brilliant creation.  Unfortunately after that it was as if he got stuck on Jack Sparrow.  His usually impeccable taste in choosing roles went down hill.  Every character was some reiteration of Jack Sparrow.

But as the Wolf, Depp echoed his old days working with Tim Burton.  His stylized hungry and sexualized wolf in anachronistic clothing represented the outlandish and stylized world that should have represented the woods.  Little Red Riding Hood is not a central character, but her story has always been one of my favorites.  The direction, though not Depp, underplayed the fact the story is about the loss of virginity.  Marshall made a poor choice in representing Little Red Riding Hood as young as he did.  In all versions I have seen, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack are teenagers.  Here they were children.  This was problematic for Riding Hood's story as an already mixed set of feelings for the metaphor of a loss of virginity became disturbing due to her age.

Of course, Disney undercut the sexy quality beneath all aspects of the play.

The woods are more than a place were magic happens.  They are the liminal space.  A place of borders crossed.  A place were lives could change.  Where the subconscious became conscious.  The concept of the woods as a world of metaphors and archetypes, only to become broken archetypes--this was one of the things I always loved about this piece.  I sorely missed it here.

The play is a complicated one, I will give you that, and the need to simplify must have been strong.  The choice to nix songs for explanations to beat the plot into the audience's head did not work.  The songs that were left out, the screen time given to the Baker, the hero of the piece, sidelined him as a plot device to keep all the stories intertwined.  Two choices had an especially bad effect.

The first was to remove the Baker's father as a character.  I can see how he might have been thought of as a complication, but without him, the Baker does not sing his duet with his father.  That song is the pivotal piece in the Baker's character at the end.  Without it, his arc clunked.

The other was to have the narrator as a voice over instead of a character.  It must have felt natural to make the narrator narration, but he plays a critical role in the play.  Without him, the devolution of the fabric of the fairy tales in the second half makes no sense.

The Witch's two heartbreaking songs--"Lament" and  "Children Will Listen " were undercut by the change of Rapunzel's (Mackenzie Mauzy) role and the fact the second song was done as a soaring voice over instead of giving Meryl Streep the chance to go all out on her acting.  Also, I love Meryl Streep, but Bernadette Peters created the role, and in my mind it still belongs to her.  Meryl Streep comes in second class.

Most of the problems were not due to the actors, but to the rewrite of the script and especially Marshall's direction.  Again, if you want to go see a show about fairy tales going wild, this is a fun fluff piece for the most part.  You'll probably have fun.

But if you want to understand Sondheim's vision, go watch the play.  Barring chances to do that,  the TV show American Playhouse, which shows tapings of plays, has a great version directed by Lapine.

In the meantime, I hope to see you in the in-betweens.


  1. Great review. Lots of fun but maybe for more sophisticated children; children who've been read to or somehow grew imagination; the setting dark and wet, and at the end, I couldn't help thinking Little Red Riding Hood had to "listen" while sitting in the mud, mud, mud. Loved the kids and Depp and Emily Blunt.

  2. Absolutely couldn't agree more. I had fun watching the movie, but it is a white bread rendition of the really dense, chewy play. I'm not old enough to remember Ethel Merman on the stage, but Peters has more stage presence than any musical comedy star since. Great review

  3. Absolutely couldn't agree more. I had fun watching the movie, but it is a white bread rendition of the really dense, chewy play. I'm not old enough to remember Ethel Merman on the stage, but Peters has more stage presence than any musical comedy star since. Great review