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The highs and lows of Disney’s Into the Woods

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

I won’t pretend I wasn’t excited to see the new Disney film version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods. More accurately, I was, like the musical’s Little Red Riding Hood, excited and scared: thrilled that Into the Woods was finally reaching the screen after several false starts, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), with a starry cast led by no less an eminence than Meryl Streep Herself; yet worried not just that the film might be bad, but that it would be different.

Before I wander off the path for a moment, let me say this: I think Marshall’s Into the Woods is wonderful. I consider it a joy, a relief and—no joke—a gift to generations to come. This is not my response as a film critic (Time Out will run a review next week, before the movie’s December 25 opening); it is my response as a theater person, and specifically as a fan of Into the Woods, which is a show I know perhaps too well. Not only did I listen obsessively to the 1987 original cast album in my formative years, but as a teenager I played the dual role of Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf in a synagogue youth production of the show. Here is a video of me as the Wolf. Please be kind:

I know: That costume! Those gyrations! And in a synagogue, yet! But I digress.

To love a musical early is often to love it forever. Our hearts are wired to it, and whatever faults it has, if and when we grow to notice them, are forgiven or defended. Our intimate knowledge of it and affection for it become a comfort, even when the show itself is as deliberately discomfiting as Into the Woods, which takes a dark look beyond the happy supposed endings of fairy tales. (Act I of the musical—in which the familiar stories of Cinderella, Little Red, Jack and Rapunzel are cleverly intertwined with the new tale of a childless baker and his wife—is a farce; Act II is a tragedy with philosophical underpinnings.)

What’s more, we tend to get attached to the first version of the show that we see or hear. For more than 25 years, in the case of Woods, that has generally meant the original Broadway production, which was preserved for posterity in a treasured 1991 recording for PBS. This is the mother text, and all revivals—like the major New York ones on Broadway in 2002, in Central Park in 2012 or at the Roundabout currently—are thrown into the potentially awkward role of stepmothers.

The prospect of a new mommy has already alarmed some of my confreres in the show-lover demimonde. (In a recent online column, Tyler Coates says he won’t see the movie because it can’t be “the comfortably familiar, original production.”) But Into the Woods is, on a fundamental level, about the need to move beyond dependence on maternal comfort; to avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific, but let’s just say that, strictly in terms of body count, Into the Woods could be a Mother’s Day­–themed horror film.

With a screenplay by Lapine himself, the Into the Woods movie is remarkably faithful to the original. I imagine that it will meet the usual resistance from people who don’t like musicals in general and/or Sondheim’s music in particular, or who are annoyed—as some people have always been—that the musical’s frisky, witty, amusingly “dark” first half spirals into a somber, serious, actually dark ending. But in all the important ways, this is the film that Woods fans have been waiting for, and it was worth the wait.

Back to the path, then. Here are my thoughts on the issues that have dominated discussion of the film among those who know Into the Woods.

The cast:

As the Witch, Meryl Streep gives a delightful Late Meryl Streep performance, which is to say that she seems to be playing Meryl Streep playing the Witch. But this sense of distance works for the material, and her line readings of the jokes are witty and original; hers is a scarier and angrier Witch than Bernadette Peters’s more adorable 1987 crone. And her singing is thrilling, especially in the climatic “Last Midnight.”

British actors James Corden and Emily Blunt are terrific as the Baker and the Baker’s Wife: funny, grounded and human. Unlike their 1987 counterparts, played by Chip Zien and Joanna Gleason, they do not seem like an Upper West Side couple that has wandered into folklore; they are of a piece with the other stories. As Cinderella, Anna Kendrick sings the stuffing out of “On the Steps of the Palace”—which Sondheim has smartly rewritten into the present tense—and gives the part a welcome dose of pluck.

The weakest link is Johnny Depp’s Wolf—and not just because I happen to have played his role. (The entire Little Red/Wolf sequence, in fact, is slightly off, with a stagey shadow-puppet moment and a strange CGI sequence of Little Red’s journey through the wolf’s insides.) But Daniel Huttlestone, who triumphed as Gavroche in Les Misérables, is equally appealing here as Jack; Lilla Crawford is an admirably straightforward Little Red. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are the right blend of handsome and shallow as the Princes, sharing a memorable “Agony” on a waterfall. In smaller roles, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour and Simon Russell Beale are as good as you would expect from them.

Christine Baranski, as Cinderella’s Stepmother, is unimprovable.

The score:

There was much brow-furrowing earlier this year when Sondheim let slip that “Any Moment” might be cut from the movie. As it turns out, that song remains, but others have indeed been excised. In every case, the cuts make sense to me; indeed, their removal helps the movie.

Some are easy calls: The Act I finale, “Ever After,” and the Act II prologue are no longer needed, since there is no longer an intermission, and their absence actually helps smooth over one of the stage version’s main problems: The significant tonal difference between the two halves of the show. The second act needed the audience to care about the characters in a way that the authors hadn’t quite set up in the jokier first.

Now that there is no button at the end of Act I, the two parts of the story connect more naturally. And the removal of other songs speeds the second part along, mitigating the dragginess that could set in on stage with the original score’s succession of ballads. “No More” may be no more, but the dialogue scene that replaces it does its work efficiently, and the music of the missing song plays in the background, as a welcome compromise. And the lecturing “Children Will Listen” finale has, smartly, been downgraded to credits music. (In the interest of speedier storytelling, the “Agony” reprise has also been sliced. Onstage, it provided much-needed comic relief; onscreen, it would have been a momentum-killer.)

Sondheim apparently wrote a new song for Streep that was not used in the final version; I hope we’ll get to hear it someday, but the history of Sondheim’s new songs for old shows is spotty. (The dreary “Rainbows,” which he wrote for a proposed version of Woods in the 1990s, is mercifully not included here either.) The music, played by a huge orchestra, sounds glorious, and the dazzling lyrics have probably never sounded quite so crisp and intelligible.

The Disney question:

The most common worry about Into the Woods was that the movie, produced as it is by Disney, would bleach the material of its violence. That hasn’t happened. One secondary character who dies in the stage musical does live in the movie, but the change is fairly minor, especially given the comic way in which the death was originally staged; the Narrator, who also died onstage, has been eliminated entirely. But fear not, carnage fans: There is still a great deal of death, mutilation and destruction in the film version.

This Into the Woods is not perfect. I wish there were a better sense of the Giant, and her point of view. I wish that Sondheim’s key twist on the idea that “no one is alone”—not just in the sense of community, but in the sense of understanding how your actions affect others around you—had been expanded and clarified, rather than contracted. I wish Meryl Steep’s forehead makeup didn’t sometimes look like action lines in cartoons. I wish the Wolf scenes weren't weird. I wish a lot of things!

So again, this Into the Woods isn’t perfect. But neither, it turns out, was the original production. And neither was my teenage production. And neither is any Into the Woods. Neither is anything. As Little Red says: Isn’t it nice to know a lot?

Into the Woods opens on December 25. Go see it.

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