I find it informative at the start to write about Into the Woods, Disney’s new film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim fairy tale mash-up musical, in the context of comparing it to Annie, another big screen version of a musical (albeit less acclaimed than Sondheim’s) that has just arrived in theaters as well. Both can be viewed in the larger context of the movie musical genre itself, which was all but left for dead for nearly 30 years but has shown intermittent signs of life ever since Chicago went to Oscar glory in 2000.
The point is that nowadays it seems as if there are very few filmmakers who can actually grasp how to translate a stage musical to the screen, with the once grand tradition of filmed musicals that stretched from the 1930s to the tail end of the 1960s in danger of being lost. Being inherently theatrical, musicals (the good ones, of course) need big, colorful, widescreen images to capture their pageantry and the tableaux-like beauty of musical numbers.
That is why Annie, if I can take a moment for a mini-review (and I feel bad about kicking Sony Pictures while it’s down, but there’s no way around this), is one of the worst filmed musicals it’s ever been my displeasure to sit through. Director Will Gluck simply does not know where to point the camera for this kind of material, and he’s not helped by the fact that almost none of his cast members know how to sing or dance (also not helping: the Autotuned blandness of the heavily updated and revamped score). It’s a mismatch of material, cast and filmmaker on an epic scale.
Into the Woods, on the other hand, works much better because director Rob Marshall – whose previous film musicals are Chicago and Nine – knows what a musical should look and sound like. He knows he needed actors who could sing, for one thing, and many of his cast members here deliver in delightful and surprising ways. And while I wouldn’t say that Into the Woods is gloriously successful as a movie, Marshall does do a lot to open up the story and material while retaining some of the qualities of the stage version…at least for the first two acts of the film.
The story, written by James Lapine (who also wrote the screenplay), with music and lyrics by Sondheim, was and is striking: what if all the fairy tales we grew up reading – the adventures of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and his beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood – all took place within the same time and space and overlapped with each other? (Yes, it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe before there was one!) And what happened to those characters after the stories ended and the reality of life set in?
The main storyline is one that Lapine made up for the show, in which a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt, singing her heart out) long for a child but cannot have one because of a curse placed on their house by a witch (Meryl Streep, also putting her pipes to powerful use). The witch, who wants to be young and beautiful again, needs four items that she tasks the baker and his wife with finding: a “milky white” cow, a silver slipper, a red cape and a lock of golden hair. As these items belong respectively to Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red (Lilla Crawford) and Rapunzel (Mackenize Maury), the couple soon get involved in their well-known adventures as well, along with characters like Cinderella’s narcissistic Prince (Chris Pine), Jack’s harried mother (Tracey Ullman), a Wolf (Johnny Depp) and others.
The novelty of Into the Woods onstage was that the first act ended with the “happily ever after” part of everyone’s stories – Jack slew the Giant, Cinderella got the prince, etc. – while the second act concerned itself with what came next: the Prince strays and has an affair with the baker’s wife, just to name one example. None of the stories end particularly well for the characters, and although one message of the story is that none of us are alone, the deeper theme deals with the much grimmer and depressing idea that life rarely has a happy ending for anyone.
This worked well enough on stage with a little space between the two halves, but the rather rapid and jarring tonal shift almost derails Into the Woods onscreen. Until that point, it’s a funny, satiric and largely entertaining romp – there are no real showstopping numbers but Marshall still gives the songs the space they need – and the cast is fully committed (it’s a real hoot to see the modern-day Captain Kirk belt out his big number, “Agony,” in the best over-emoting tradition of his predecessor, the Shat). But the story (or stories) shift so quickly into the darker final third of the narrative that it throws the movie off-balance. The last section also feels oddly truncated – Rapunzel, for instance, all but disappears without her story being fully resolved.
Marshall and Lapine fail to make that transition fully work, but at least Marshall does let the musical unfold elegantly through the first hour and change, especially when he shifts between location shooting and sets. The later sections take place almost entirely in the woods and begin to feel claustrophobic, which may have been the intention, but we’re in the forest so long that we begin to realize what a small set it actually is. Despite that, the movie is mostly wonderful to look at even though it becomes more of a chore to watch during the “feel bad” portion of the story.
Kudos to Blunt, Streep, Pine, Kendrick, Corden and just about everyone else for terrific performances and singing across the board (even Depp’s usual tricks are more subdued in his brief scene, to better effect), with Blunt and Streep in particular commanding the screen every time they show up. Into the Woods was certainly a departure on stage in terms of its somberness and heavy themes, and the movie is ultimately unable to navigate that turn while still retaining the energy it starts out with. But when it comes to all the other aspects of this – bringing more Sondheim to the screen, adapting a more mature musical, even subverting some of the parent studio’s best-known characters – I suppose it’s better to set out on an adventure and get lost in the forest along the way than to never take the journey at all.