Film of the Week: Into the Woods
The subtlety, complexity, even difficulty of some Stephen Sondheim musicals means that the composer’s shows have rarely had “surefire hit” written all over them (what, you mean you can’t hum any tunes from his Road Show, aka Bounce?). But Sondheim was right in guessing that there would be mileage in his and book writer James Lapine’s 1987 venture into fairy tales; he recalls in his second lyrics anthology Look, I Made a Hat: “I brashly predicted that if the piece worked, it would spawn innumerable productions for many years to come, since it dealt with world myths and fables and would never therefore feel dated . . . I predicted that Into the Woods could be a modest annuity for us.”
That annuity now brings Sondheim and Lapine a lucrative dividend in the form of a Disney screen adaptation, directed by Rob Marshall. According to Marshall, not only is Into the Woods not dated, but it’s more in tune with the times than ever. He claims he was inspired to make the film by hearing President Obama, 10 years after 9/11, telling the victims’ families, “You are not alone”—a key phrase in Sondheim’s lyrics. For Marshall, Into the Woods is “a fairy tale for the 21st-century, post–9/11 generation… The comforting knowledge that we are not alone in this unstable world gives us all that glimmer of hope.”
Some Sondheim devotees were shocked by the very prospect of an adaptation for Disney, especially when the maestro announced in a New Yorker piece that the plot had been changed, and some of its darker elements toned down. Sondheim subsequently modified his remarks. In the end, Marshall’s Into the Woods is not altogether the soft Disneyfication that you might fear. After all, when we see the perennial fairyland palace in the company’s opening ident, it’s being invaded by gnarly briars creeping in from the edges. If Disney lets its very logo be invaded, how compromised can this film possibly be?
Yet there’s cause for concern in Marshall’s talk about comforting knowledge and glimmers of hope. Yes, Into the Woods ends on a positive note—sort of. Lessons are learned, characters have reconciled themselves to their fates, accepted the reality principle that they, and we, have gleaned from the show’s several intertwined fairytales. The show ends with the assembled chorus singing “Out of the woods / And happy ever after!” only to be followed by the plaintive solo voice of Cinderella repeating the line that started the show: “I wish…” Sondheim and Lapine’s point is that in life, there can be no “happy after ever,” no end to wishing, no (to use that most hollowly reassuring Hollywoodian story term) “closure.”
The joy of any Sondheim musical is that, while there is abundant pleasure and sometimes even a sort of affirmative payoff, anything as soft and infantilizing as “comfort” isn’t in the picture. Nor is his work unproblematic entertainment—his musicals constantly draw attention to themselves as musicals, while refusing the traditional pleasures of the form, such as songs that clearly start and finish, that don’t dissolve in mid-phrase or leak tantalizingly into each other. The essence of Into the Woods derives from the absurd premise of adult players performing material derived from the tales of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—and latterly associated with the nursery entertainment of Disney animation and British pantomime—but infusing it with adult themes and anxieties, and inviting an adult audience to read it in a serious, adult manner. Such discrepancies make Into the Woods, all in all, a very Brechtian musical.
There’s nothing very Brechtian about Marshall’s film. Yes, there’s the ostensibly bizarre spectacle of assorted prestigious Hollywood names (Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep) playing familiar pantomime figures, but that in itself is no more subversively defamiliarizing than, say, Angelina Jolie’s wearing wings and horns in Maleficent. We’ve become all too accustomed to fairy tales as mainstream Hollywood material—partly as a result of the old stories being re-ironized and re-booted by Shrek, which itself arguably took several lessons from Sondheim’s show. So a generally by-the-book movie of Into the Woods—especially with the workmanlike Marshall at the helm—comes across as a so-so proposition, and in some ways exactly what Sondheim said the show would never be, dated.
Not that Marshall does enough creatively to mess up Sondheim and Lapine’s achievement. In the musical, the woods are, as Sondheim has explained, “the all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed.” They also represent the adult world of contingency, complexity, sexuality, and the place where stories—traditionally kept apart from real life and given neat closure—are interlocked and denied safe, sealed-in endings. (Contemporary Hollywood doesn’t actually like closure: why end a story decisively when you can have a dangling ending—a stray beanstalk shoot, in this film’s terms—snaking off towards the possibility of sequels?)
The various denizens of these woods include Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her vile sisters and stepmother (a nicely snippy Christine Baranski); a manipulative, shape-shifting Witch (Meryl Streep), a more sympathetic and troubled maternal figure than her Disney/Grimm/Perrault forebears; and two more figures who belong equally to the fairy-tale world and to modern working humanity, a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt). Characters venture out on various missions, some of them quests given by the Witch, and many achieve their hearts’ desires at a certain point—which is where the original musical has its intermission, and where many school productions reach their end. It’s in Act 2, however, that the tales unravel disturbingly. In the movie, the lack of a break, and Marshall’s hurriedness in bustling ahead past the pivotal twist, defuses much of the bitter irony as Rapunzel flees in a fit of madness, the Baker’s Wife has an affair with a Prince (Chris Pine), and the slain Giant’s widow (the great British actress Frances de la Tour, here looming ghoulishly through treetops) descends to earth seeking revenge.
Marshall and a classy team (including DP Dion Beebe, production designer Dennis Gassner, costume designer Colleen Atwood) have done a creditable job making Sondheim’s fairyland real: shot on location in England and at Shepperton Studios, the film evokes a part-medieval, part-Victorian tainted Arcadia. But the setting feels too real and the performances too theatrical for a natural fit—the result is not quite rich enough in its illusion to make us feel that we’re watching a real movie, as opposed to a movie-fication of a show that worked brilliantly in its own terms (exactly the trouble with Marshall’s flat Chicago).
Some tricks try and re-create in cinematic terms the show’s overtly theatrical jiggery-pokery—notably the Witch’s sudden arrivals and departures, which still have a dash of the old trapdoors-and-smoke-bombs brio about them. Less effective is the normalizing use of CGI—Jack clambering up the Beanstalk, the Giant on his heels. What’s missing is an attempt to really engage with the ambiguity of illusion and storytelling, to highlight the un-naturalness of the fairy-tale universe: in other words, something that engages with the seriously ludic essence of Sondheim, as Tim Burton did in his swashbuckling, rapturously morbid Sweeney Todd.
Marshall’s hectic pacing wore me out before the halfway mark, and actually made me lose interest in the score for a while: you need that intermission, or something like it, to take a breather, re-distance yourself, adjust your expectations for a darker second part. But the songs, and Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, are still sublime, and there are some enjoyable performances. As the strident, Cockney-sounding Jack, young Daniel Huttlestone has a touch of Oliver!’s Jack Wild, and Lilla Crawford’s Red Riding Hood, with her Brooklyn foghorn delivery, is a hoot, weirdly reminiscent of Aida Mohammadkhani, the insistently questing tyke heroine of Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon. Streep does quality Streep, of course—playing the Witch’s beauteous self as a preening take on Billie Burke in The Wizard of Oz, while shooting twitchy sidelong looks of hurt and resentment in her ugly form. She’s funny and poignant, and sings more than adequately, with wit and nuance.
Kendrick is agreeably spiky, Corden is at worst affable—but the show-stealer is Emily Blunt, who captures the doubt, yearning, and sexual restlessness of the Baker’s Wife, and sings with a full-blooded, rather raunchier echo of Julie Andrews’s ever-so-proper exuberance. But Chris Pine’s Prince is just too comically swaggering, and a good example of what makes the film look behind the times: the characterization seems to be modeled directly on the blowhard Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, a character that, again, probably owed much to Sondheim’s Prince in the first place. And “Agony,” sung by the Princes (Pine and the considerably more modulated Billy Magnussen) is played for bumptious laughs, where in the original, the whole point is that the song is self-parodic—yet can shred your heart, for that very reason.
The really awkward thing, though, is the Wolf, played by Johnny Depp—and an oddly muted Depp at that. Apparently it was his idea to model the character visually on the lecherous lupine of Tex Avery’s cartoons, a touch that Atwood has extrapolated brilliantly in the form of a fur-patterned zoot suit. Depp does a sleazier, more overtly rakish variation on his Sweeney/Jack Sparrow Anglo-roué voice, but it’s a low-key performance—almost as if Depp were nervous of what he was singing. As well he might be: “Look at that flesh / Pink and plump / Hello, little girl . . . Think of that scrumptious carnality…”—after which Riding Hood, escaping alive, sings, “He showed me things / Many beautiful things / That I hadn’t thought to explore / And me made me excited / Well, excited and scared…” The musical’s point is that fairy tales are childhood’s rehearsals for both the terror and ecstasy of sex—and on stage, the perversity of these songs can be drawn out to pithy effect, even if theater companies today may balk more than they did in 1987 at the thought of depicting the Wolf as a predatory pedophile.
That’s where the film comes untangled, and most awkwardly Disneyfied—it’s hard not to think of Depp as a fundamentally sexual presence, even when he’s playing roles for goofy laughs. Doing the Wolf as a cad wanting his territorial droit du seigneur gives his scene an unwittingly creepy flavor, especially given that he’s singing to a girl who, unlike the older actresses who have played Riding Hood on stage, is manifestly a child. By desexualizing her, the film ends up unintentionally being much more creepy than the original: what becomes obscene in the play between Depp and Lilla Crawford is that they are feigning not to be singing about sex (between a young girl and a much older man) when we know that that’s exactly what they’re singing about. The Sondheim mischief becomes queasy here, because the film asks us to believe that this rather serious and Freudian mischief is merely cheeky panto-style knowingness.
Marshall delivers Into the Woods to the screen dutifully, but what’s lost is the real point of the show as an exploration of storytelling—and the playfulness too, in both senses, for stage Sondheim is both ludic and fully mindful of its own status as play. Marshall’s is a pleasant, stolidly executed fantasia that could in effect be a less dazzling but more lyrically astute screen version of Shrek: The Musical. This Into the Woods is Sondheim, and Sondheim-approved—but it’s just not Sondheim.
Into the Woods opens December 25.