“Into the Woods” is fine film adaptation of Steven Sondheim classic musical
"Into the Woods” is undoubtedly the best musical playing in theaters right now. It’s interesting that I can write that sentence, as I can’t remember any time in the previous five years in which there was more than one major Hollywood musical to choose from. The other is “Annie,” of course, which is an updated and slicker (read: worse) version of the 1977 musical about a plucky orphan and her dog warming the heart of a rich old man. For whatever reason, the filmmakers thought that the 1933 setting was too outdated for modern audiences.
“Into the Woods” doesn’t suffer from such notions, as Disney might as well own the rights to “once upon a time” tales, and fits well into them. However, a Disney adaptation means censorship and whitewashing, which will always weaken the source material. The darkness found in “Into the Woods” is lightened, but only just so, and the music and cast are more than enough to counter any weaknesses in the cuts. “Into the Woods” is as faithful an adaptation as can be expected and should please fans of Stephen Sondheim to no end. Audiences unfamiliar with his work are likely to be pleased as well.
The film is a wonderful retelling of several Grimm’s Fairytales, full of the usual crossed narratives common in Sondheim’s work. Musicals of this sort need fast pacing to counter the thin archetypal characters. As this is a film based on a Sondheim work, these archetypes are twisted versions of the familiar tales, rounded in places, but square enough to fit the necessary tropes.
The film follows the wishes of four major groups: the Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) who want a child, Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) who wants to go to the king’s festival, Jack and his Mother (Daniel Huttlestone and Tracy Ullman) who want to survive, and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who wants to bring food to her grandmother. Looming over each of these stories is the Witch (Meryl Streep) who seeks to make herself young again. The Witch sets the Baker and his Wife on a quest to find four items, each belonging to one of the main characters. They all interact in the titular woods.
The story is, of course, secondary to the music. Sondheim is one of the best composers of a generation and “Into the Woods” is an exceptionally transcendent example of his work. As with any adaptation, cuts need to be made. Thirteen songs found in the stage version are missing from the film; however, some are simply reprises. Additionally, Sondheim composed two new songs specifically for the film, both of which were cut for pacing reasons.
The film is just over two hours long, but seems to drag towards the end. Had the director not cut certain scenes (or simply jammed them into one, as is the case with Cinderella’s wedding), the film might have been able to flesh out the story and allow the audience to follow without getting bored. As it is, the false ending feels too real and what follows too tacked on. The film might have been better served by trusting the source material more.
Yet even with the pacing problems, the film is dynamic and entertaining. Much of this is due to the talent of the cast. While Meryl Streep cannot compete with Bernadette Peters in any vocal competition, her chops as an actress make up for it. Anna Kendrick and Emily Blunt both excel in their roles, as does James Corden.
The film’s highlight, however, comes from the performance of “Agony” by the Princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussan). Their casting is perfect for the roles—if any of the reprises needed to be kept, “Agony” is one.
It seems that big-budget musicals will soon become a staple of the holiday season. There are several in development, with famous names like “Gypsy,” Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Cats.” These films are fairly safe and have a built-in fan base, much like certain superheroes we all know and love. But the planned remake of “Guys and Dolls” gives me pause. Some things were perfect in their original form. Hollywood might need to make a hard stop before someone tries to sell a new version of “Singin’ in the Rain” with Taylor Swift and Channing Tatum.