Into The Woods is the latest Broadway musical to hit the big screen. The question is does it entertain and charm well enough for moviegoers?
The film begins just as the fairy tales do so: Little Red Riding Hood is about to go to grandma’s with her basket, Jack has to sell the cow as she’s getting old, Cinderella is being mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, a lonely couple want a child, and Rapunzel is imprisoned in a castle by the Witch. The Witch puts a request on the couple. You first thing it’s just Rapunzel’s hair but she also asks for a red cape, a white cow and a golden slipper.
As they search the stories proceed: Riding Hood is lured off the path by a wolf, Jack goers to market but will only accept an offer that would mean the return of his cow, Cinderella arrives at the ball. However the couple find their way into the story or pass by it: Jack receives magic beans from the husband, the wife tries to swipe Cinderella’s slipper off her feet after running from the ball, the husband passes the tower Rapunzel is kept captive in, and both notice Riding Hood’s cape.
After a series of misadventures, the couple has all the items needed to produce the spell to receive their baby, all the fairy tale characters have their expected happy endings and the witch is able to regain her beauty with the potion. However the ‘Happily ever after’ endings don’t end up being so happy after all. The Baker worries he might end up being a poor father to his son just like his own father, Cinderella loses her charm for prince charming and the lavish life with it, Rapunzel is scared by the outside world, the witch loses her powers with her returned youth and Jack is pursued by the giant’s wife –ahem, widow– who came down to earth via a second beanstalk and demands Jack or she will destroy the village and its inhabitants.
Soon everything goes opposite to what’s planned. Casualties include the Baker’s wife who fell for Prince Charming before her accidental death, Rapunzel as she ran off forever with her prince, Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, and Jack’s mother. The latter three killed in the Giant’s Wife’s rampage. On top of it, Cinderella and Prince Charming part ways. At first those still standing–the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood– think that Jack should be offered back only for them to blame each other. Nevertheless they do work things out, defend against the Giant and there’s the genesis of a new fairy tale the Baker reads to his son.
I have to say as a musical, Into The Woods was probably not the first time fairy tales have been mixed together to surround a main plot. It’s not even the first in motion pictures. Remember Shrek? What it needed to do was stay true to the fables while mixing the story of the baker and his wife as well as the haunting of the Witch during the first half and then allow for a believable twist to the fables we all know to occur in the second half. Even though the twist occurred starting with the giant’s wife appearing, all the twists of the stories had to appear sensible and pertinent to the original story. Some of the twists were very surprising and even tragic but it did come together in the end. That’s how the stage musical of Into The Woods worked.
The next trick was to bring Sondheim’s musical to the screen. Putting a stage musical to screen is a very difficult thing. There’s a lot of decision-making on what from the stage play to leave in and what to leave out. That would fall into the hands of director Rob Marshall and scriptwriter James Lapine who wrote the original Broadway version. However when it’s Disney that buys the rights, you think it would be a big break but there was an added challenge. Naturally with this being a musical about a mish mash of fairy tales, Disney would want to make this a family film and that could be intrusive to the control Sondheim and Lapine have over the play. This was not the case as both Sondheim and Lapine insisted to Disney that any changes would have to be approved by them. Even then, they would have to work within time constraints and keep it to a respectable running length.
In the end, Sondheim, Marshall, Lapine and the production company were able to create a finished adaptation 125 minutes in length that brings the musical to a big screen audience with big-name stars and additional musical talents. I myself cannot compare the film to the stage version since I’ve never seen the stage version. I will start by saying it doesn’t surprise me that Disney acquired the rights to adapting the musical to film as Disney is world famous for bringing fairy tales to life. I will say that one can do a good job differentiating the actors who know how to do musical acting and those who don’t. You just know it. There were some like Chris Pine and Mackenzie Mauzy who struggled, there were some like Billy Magnussen and James Corden who could have done a better job, there are some like Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Tracey Ullman who know how to deliver both singing and acting and then there are actors like Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep who are able to deliver a performance in a musical. Meryl was especially excellent as she had the role that would hold the film all together. Musical film is another genre she can add to her list of accomplishments.
I will say that the film adaptation did very well in terms of special effects and set design to give the fell like there really was one terrain in the world where all the original stories happen at once. Colleen Atwood once again knows how to create the right costumes for the movie. The music was not a problem at all as the songs were well-sung and fit the scenes well. The film also did a good job of handling the story where all the fables get their twist in the end. However the film does leave some noticeable things out. There are some times where it felt the story had key scenes left out like the big bad wolf living in the tree about to eat Red or Jack in the giant’s house or Cinderella’s fairy godmother creating her clothes for the ball. There were even some times when one could easily forget that this is a musical and it would take a song some time later to remind you. There were even a couple of scenes that made you wonder if it should have been kept in. I can’t think of a better way to do it but I’m sure there are areas that could have been done better. Rob Marshall did a very good job of directing. It’s fair to say this is his best work since Chicago but there are some areas I feel he could have been better, like not having us forget this is a musical in some areas. It may not completely be his fault as the script was written by James Lepine. Lepine may be an accomplished scriptwriter and director in musical theatre and this may be Lepine’s best musical ever but somehow he could have done a better job at a stage-to-screen adaptation.
The film adaptation of Into The Woods has been long awaited. Now that it’s here, it’s imperfect but very enjoyable and entertaining.