INTO THE WOODS is a good movie. So why did I leave the theatre feeling disappointed? The answer is a complicated one. And might be less relevant to those who are unfamiliar with the Tony award winning Broadway musical on which the film is based. But to put it simply: INTO THE WOODS left me shaking my head not because of all the things it got wrong, but because of all the things it got right.
INTO THE WOODS is based on the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine and is directed by Rob Marshall (the director behind the Oscar winning CHICAGO and NINE). It weaves several of the classic Grimm fairy tales together using a tale (invented specifically for the story) of a Baker and his wife who, in hopes of reversing a spell so that they can have a baby, agree to help the witch next door by collecting four different objects: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Sent on their quest, the couple come across Jack, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella and hilarity and singing ensue. But that’s just Act 1. The second half of the film takes place after the “happily ever after” and this is where the musical moves from highly entertaining to emotionally impactful and wonderfully subversive. As one person sings: “Sometimes people leave you . . . others may deceive you.” Characters die, things don’t go as planned. Ultimately, the message of the story is: Life ain’t no fairytale, but that’s okay. And it ends on a hopeful note (both metaphorically and literally).
Let me start by addressing the good and very good. First of all, I think right now Marshall is the only film director of musicals where you don’t sit there cringing in fear of whether or not the actors cast will be able to pull off the singing. Let me assure you, the singing is just fine. In some cases, downright good. I knew, for example, that Meryl Streep (as The Witch) could sing, but I had no idea she could belt.
As is probably evident from the trailers, the film itself is just plain beautiful to look at. And while the visual effects generally are very strong, what’s even better is so much takes place on real sets or in real settings. The integration of music and dialogue works wonderfully well and is quite impressive considering up until this point, Marshall has not been able to do a musical where the numbers weren’t part of a dream sequence. Also, for fans of the play fearing rumours of lyric changes, you can be reassured they are all done for logic sake (“Steps of the Palace” is now sung present time as she’s making the decision, and so was changed from past tense).
In general the performances are spot on. Yes, maybe Johnny Depp’s presence as The Wolf feels more like stunt casting, but even he pulls off his one song (for those of you scared to see this film because of him, let me reassure you, The Wolf is a cameo role at best. Don’t make any choices about this film based on him). Anna Kendrick as Cinderella is a delight, successfully playing the complicated feeling of both wanting to be adored by the prince, and also finding that terrifying. Chris Pine is a hoot and evidently has some vibrato going on. And also, whether on purpose or not, is kind of doing Shatner doing The Prince. His number with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) “Agony”, one of the funniest in the show, is an absolute riot and quite frankly worth the price of admission alone (fans of the play can breathe a sigh of relief now).
Once we get into the meat of “Last Midnight” (a showstopping musical number in the second half), after it’s strangely unemotional lead in, we get some real panache and power from Streep. But it’s with “Stay With Me” that she packs the biggest emotional wallop and reminds you that she might not have the voice of Bernadette Peters (who originated the role on Broadway), but Streep is still Streep. The two kids are oddly some of the only stage musical veterans in the cast and really do a great job playing Jack and Red Riding Hood (Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford respectively). Emily Blunt in my very biased eyes can do no wrong. She shows a lovely softer side of herself here as The Baker’s Wife, and can absolutely carry a tune. James Corden really impressed me in the first half of the film, and his singing, though not the strongest, has charm and personality and that’s what we need from The Baker. However, come the second half, he had difficulty with the more emotionally complex moments.
And this leads us into addressing the rather large giant in the room: The second half of the film (or what should be the second half of the film but rather is more like the last third). Let me begin by saying it’s fine. It is quite good in places. But it in no way lives up to the fabulousness of the first half of the movie you’ve just witnessed, nor does it do justice to the original play’s Act 2. This is the part of the show that subverts everything you know about fairy tales, this is the part of the show that is meant to pack a wallop, hit you right in all those feelings, and it is rushed. It is an afterthought.
I don’t know who got scared first, I greatly suspect it was the studio (considering Lapine is the screenwriter on this too, and Sondheim was right there re-working the songs, it feels off that those two would actively choose to treat Act 2 like they did. It’s much more of a compromise situation I think), but someone got spooked. Someone feared it would be too sad. Too dark. Someone thought it was too difficult to reconcile the lightheartedness of the first act with the darkness of the second. Someone didn’t know how to make a two act play into a three act movie. Someone feared it would just be too long a film. Look, I get it. You have to cut some stuff. Cut out the second “Agony”. Even though it does undermine another subversion, you still get the same message with Cinderella and her Prince. But there’s stuff, and then there’s STUFF. There’s trimming the fat, then there’s butchering the meat.
Here’s a rather involved explanation for you folks not familiar with the play. In the second half of the play there’s this marvelous tragic song called “No More”. It might be one of the most depressing songs in musicals after “I Dreamed A Dream”. Example of the lyrics: “How do you ignore all the witches, all the curses, all the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses. All the wondering what even worse is still in store. . . no more.” It’s a song about giving up when all hope seems lost (no worries, the character doesn’t). It is one of a pair of songs that I believe are essential to the meaning of Act 2 and indeed the whole show. The other song is about how you’re never really alone, and things will be okay. But the second song needs the first song. Without “No More” we have nothing to come back from. Without the lows you cannot come back with renewed strength. Nor can we learn the lesson that even when all hope seems lost, you can and will go on and be okay again.
“No More” is cut from the film and in its place, some quick dialogue and some tears with the melody of the song playing over it. So yeah, okay, the same message gets delivered to the audience. But here’s the thing. This is a musical. Songs are sung at the most crucial moments in a musical. They signify that this is the thing that is so emotional to me I can only sing it. If you don’t sing something in a musical, it’s less important. It’s not as big an emotional issue. And, for me at least, it pretty much watered down the entire emotional arc of this character. It’s just not the same. It’s rushing an incredibly important emotional moment because, “Guys, the clock’s ticking!”
That’s the essence of the second half. And I don’t think this is something that only people who know the play will feel. Even though they don’t know what songs have been cut, I think newcomers will feel like something’s missing in the second half. That it touches on all these supposedly big points, characters do die and behave badly, but doesn’t go deeper. The real crime is the producers had the time to do it too. The movie comes in pretty much right at 2 hours, and in this day and age that’s practically a short film. They just didn’t think they could get away with it. The irony too is sometimes giving something its due actually makes something feel shorter. Pacing isn’t just about length, it’s about structure, and as it currently stands, the latter half of the film feels tacked on and therefore kind of like a drawn out epilogue.
And so the film ends fine but not with the same emotional impact as the play. And it could have. It really could have. They were doing everything so right up until Act 2. They got it. They understood what they were doing. They had a director who knows how to direct musicals, and they had the actors who could perform it too. And they chickened out.
So. Is this a good movie? Yes. It is. It is worth seeing for the first half alone, which really technically is the first two thirds. Heck, there are great moments in their version of Act 2 as well, I’m not saying there aren’t (“Last Midnight” is pretty darn good, despite the Baker’s oddly chill reaction to all that’s going on). But is it what it could have been? Especially after all the wonderfulness in the movie’s Act 1? No. And that’s what’s caused this musical lover some serious agony.
If you’re gonna geek out, GEEK HARD!