“Into the woods without regret,
The choice is made, the task is set…”
Stephen Sondheim’s found mixed fortune at the movies. Half his score to A Funny Thing… vanished on the way to the forum. Few in Sweeney Todd (enjoyable though it is) could carry a tune, and Elizabeth Taylor flounders through A Little Night Music without any help.
So Into the Woods — musically and dramatically — marks a giant step forward. I worried director Rob Marshall would place all the songs in Cinderella’s mind, but thankfully everyone sings without apology. We know we’re in good hands with the prologue, which was always filmic, Sondheim and scriptwriter James Lapine cutting among our four key stories: Cinderella, Jack, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Baker and his Wife. Once they journey into the woods to fulfill their wishes, the movie feels almost like a live-action cartoon. The woods are an obvious studio set, stylized like a Tim Burton movie, a grown-up rendering of Disney’s Tangled or Frozen.
“You’ve changed, you’re daring
You’re different in the woods.”
One significant change in Lapine’s script is the elimination of the Narrator/Mysterious Man. The Baker reads “once upon a time” instead, and we realize at the end he’s been telling this story to his son. To me, the Mysterious Man was shoe-horned into the stage version, one too many spectres roaming through the woods philosophizing. “No More,” beautiful though it is, is one too many songs, and smartly is replaced with dialogue on screen. To preserve the ominous tone once the Giant arrives, the second “Agony” is removed, and a few smaller songs cut along the way.
The act break wouldn’t make sense on film, so Lapine starts the Giantess’s destruction at Cinderella’s wedding. The whole community comes together, then is dismantled in an instant. What happens after we get our wishes, and the costs we pay, are essential to Into the Woods; but the second act here is too condensed, and the transition too sudden, to make it clear why everyone’s dying off. Most damaging, there’s no passage of time between the witch’s transformation and the wedding: a month at most? The characters don’t have time to become dissatisfied; Cinderella, especially, hasn’t lived in the palace and felt removed from the world. Is there any love between her and her prince? On a smaller note, I wish “No One Is Alone” weren’t rushed and cut down. It’s the moral center of the play, and it deserves room to breathe.
“Blithe and becoming, and frequently humming
A light-hearted air…”
The cast is very strong, especially vocally. Best of all is Emily Blunt as a marvelous Baker’s Wife, practical and determined to get her wish. In “Moments in the Woods,” she’s clearly spirited and beautiful enough to attract princes, but ultimately she wants what the Baker can give her. The Witch can feel underwritten and feckless: she sets the Baker and Wife on their quest for a child, then when they (and the others) get their wish, she derides them for the choices they made. But Meryl Streep gives the Witch an intense urgency beneath her camp and vamp. She draws on the Witch’s deep disappointment in humanity: “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true. Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too.”
Anna Kendrick sings Cinderella in a strong pop-inflected soprano, and Marshall’s placing “On the Steps of the Palace” in a freeze is clever. (“I Know Things Now” and “Giants in the Sky,” on the other hand, really just hold up the story.) But Kendrick is also expressionless, uninvolved. And Johnny Depp’s Wolf feels like he’s in the wrong story. More enjoyable are James Corden as the Baker, Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, and Christine Baranski as the Stepmother.
Rob Marshall’s woods are enchanting, elegant, but not too sinister. The death toll is lower in the movie, starting with Rapunzel (though don’t these characters suffer enough?). If Marshall seems less capable of digging into the philosophical heart of Into the Woods — well, wishes may bring problems, as Sondheim says. Better that, though, than to never get them.
For Your Consideration: Emily Blunt; Meryl Streep.