The good news is that Into the Woods was the second highest grossing film on Christmas Day and it finished third overall for the weekend.
The bad news is that I didn’t love it.
Let me compare Into the Woods to a piece of chocolate cake. Right off, you may either love or hate it because you might like or dislike chocolate, cake, or both. If you’ve never had chocolate cake before– this may be the most delicious thing you ever tasted. If you like chocolate cake– this may be satisfying; but if you love chocolate cake, this may be underwhelming or a complete disappointment. There are still others that will find– good or bad, dry or moist– they are just grateful to have a slice of cake.
For me, this version of ITW is missing key ingredients. Or to draw from the script– the potion is missing it’s hair as yellow as corn. It didn’t work for me.
The original Into the Woods clearly explores the price that comes with wishes, what is really happily ever after; and the importance of teaching children, wishes as children and the hope that exists in children themselves. Much of this is lost or brushed aside in the film. Instead of a film using fairy tales to tell a bigger story, it’s just a film telling fairy tales with a slightly different ending.
The movie is beautifully filmed and features an outstanding cast. BUT– I found it visually too dark; and with the major plot changes, I was never drawn in or emotional involved.
I have some pretty strong opinions about this particular film because I’ve had a long personal attachment to the stage version of Into the Woods.
I saw the original 1987 Broadway production– twice, the 1988 first national tour, worked the theater where the second national tour began in Chicago (non-equity), saw the 2002 Broadway revival, designed the set and costumes for a local high school production; and have seen literally dozens of professional and amateur productions over the years.
The stage version of Into the Woods is visually a combination of light (colorful) and dark images, where the movie was visually dark from start to finish. The village and castle scenes in the movie all had a dingy, dirty feel as opposed to embodying color, light or any fairy tale magic. Emotionally, the movie is pretty much gray from start to finish. I didn’t feel the passion of the dreams and wishes from the major characters; which is problematic because it leaves no real reason for them to go into the woods to begin with. We never truly see even a glimpse of the happy ever after they are so desperate to achieve.
Even in the worst productions I’ve seen, no matter how badly acted or staged– I’ve always been moved by No One Is Alone. Except in the film. To borrow from another musical, I felt nothing.
Some might feel that it is to Disney and director Rob Marshall’s credit that they didn’t Disneyfy the look of the film. I see it as a missed opportunity to enhance the story. I really would have appreciated seeing some of the beauty and opulence of the castle, for example. Instead, it was dark and drab, as was the brief wedding imagery.
In adapting for the film, the writers chose to edit and whitewash the deeper, meaningful moments of the story. Combining that with the lack of passion, it left very little to get emotionally involved in.
Without Rapunzel’s demise, we lose the witch’s profound grief that propels her into a frenzied Last Midnight. Without a larger presence of the Baker’s Father (Mysterious Man, or not) and the cut song No More, we lose what is the cathartic moment that leads to the Baker’s return to his new family. As a result, the intensity and the pure, desperate passion is lost from characters’ motivations.
One of the early moments in the film set the tone for me. Jack’s Mother, played by the incredible Tracey Ullman, was directed to be purely a serviceable character on screen. (In the stage version, she is a warm, witty and lovable character.) I believe this was done to lessen the audiences’ attachment and thus, later in the film: the reaction to her death; which also seemed somewhat muddled. Jack didn’t seem terribly upset when he found out his mother was gone, nor did Little Red over her Granny. (And did it bother anyone else that Little Red suddenly looked like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz for the remainder of the picture?)
The character of the Witch and Meryl Streep’s performance have to be looked at separately. First, I didn’t feel like the other characters really feared the Witch and her power as much as they saw her as a means to get what they wanted, or as an obstacle in doing so. Second, since the film chose to let Rapunzel ride off with the Prince, future unknown– instead of becoming a victim of the giant; it lessened the Witch’s loss. These two points affect the whole dynamic of the Witch’s antagonistic role in the story, as well as her motivations.
Meryl Streep, easily the greatest American actress of our time, fully embodied what the film set out to portray. Though I hoped for a much more powerful performance, Streep filled the bill the way the story has been adapted, perfectly. One thing I noticed, having listened to the soundtrack since; you don’t really grasp the incredible technique and emotion Streep brought to the character– vocally, in one viewing in a theater. Meryl Streep doesn’t just sing musical roles– her vocalization is a well-crafted extension of her character’s development and expression. Every word, phrase and guttural sound is perfection.
I liked the introduction of the blue moon to the story, opposed to just the passing midnights of the stage version. I thought it gave a clearer understanding of why the spell had to be broken now.
For me, the best and only perfect moment in the film was Agony. It was beautifully acted and staged. If the entire film had this energy and attention to detail, it could have been the best stage musical-to-film ever made.
I remember thinking about two-thirds of the way through: Where is all the music? A substantial amount was cut and occasionally reduced to underscoring. This is composer Stephen Sondheim’s baby. Though he and original book writer James Lapine were actively involved in the film, I feel they caved in to the studio pressures, too much, just to get this film made.
From all that I read leading up to the film’s release, Disney was concerned about the original version being too dark (plot-wise), too many main character deaths and wanted to make it more family-friendly. The result is a watered down story that still, in my opinion, is not a family movie.
Into the Woods, on screen, felt like it was too long. This is ironic since it was 20 minutes shorter than the stage version, not including an intermission. It was more than a little slow and disjointed at times.
I’m sure people completely unfamiliar with ITW will have a completely different reaction to the film. And that’s okay. I just hope it’s a positive experience. The very best thing that could come out of the film is that it might encourage a new audience for the stage version. The film versions of other more recent movie musicals have done a great service to building and keeping audience interest in live theatre.
I can only hope that this film will contribute to that trend.
Beautifully stated, Jeff. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the stage version. Having played the Witch, I am deeply attached to the play. My FAVORITE of all time. I like you, hope that others who see the movie will be drawn to the stage show and investigate how the story was meant to be told. I WISH . . .
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