I’m a bit of a Sondheim fanatic. Incidentally, my Sweeney Todd post on this blog is my most popular post of all time at Inkashlings. I also am a rabid musical fan and I like fairy story revisionism, so you’d think I was over the moon about a film adaptation of Into the Woods. I said in an old review of Kate’s The Wild Girl:
In one of the more interesting fairy story appropriations, there has even been a Tony award winning Broadway musical featuring the memorable rapping witch, Bernadette Peters, in a post modern opretta. With songs like Children Should Listen, Last Midnight and No One is Alone, Sondheim further cemented himself as a musical composer and lyricist of considerable skill with Into The Woods.
It’s fair to say that I care quite a lot about this one. I was more than a little worried, however, when I heard that Disney were making Sondheim’s Tony winning musical. The very idea seems an oxymoron. Though the first act follows tried and true fairy tale paths, albeit by revisiting the origin fairy stories of those we know and love today, the second act tracks what happens after ‘happily ever after’ has faded and becomes a moving treatise on relationships between parents and children and the importance of stories in shaping children. It’s hardly something I would have thought was up Disney’s alley.
I also wasn’t too happy when I heard that Meryl Streep had been cast as The Witch (aside: why must Hollywood insist there is only one woman over 50 suitable for Hollywood roles? It’s very tedious. Years ago Miranda Richardson pointed this out despite cries of ‘sour grapes’ but her point feels more relevant than ever these days. I like Meryl Streep and she’s a wonderful actress, but other excellent older women who act are out there!) It’s just that Bernadette Peters made that role and The Witch is the best character and I couldn’t see Meryl being as powerful a singer as Bernadette. However, it is my brother’s favorite musical and every time an adaptation is put on near us I can’t see it, so I felt like I owed it to him to see it. Also, I quite like Emily Blunt.
Surprisingly, the film isn’t as bad as you’d think it might be. Actually, it’s rather, well, good. The first half religiously follows the first act of the musical, a quest story held together by The Baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who must reverse a witches curse by collecting items from people from popular fairy stories (Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel) so that they might get their long sought after child. This half sits more comfortably with Disney’s modern oeuvre, particularly modern films like Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland. All of the cast are competent singers, with some of them genuinely very good. It’s no surprise that Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche in Les Miserables) is excellent, but though I’d heard Blunt sing once before in Poliakoff’s excellent Gideon’s Daughter, I was surprised by how convincing she was as The Baker’s Wife and Anna Kendrick sang a beautiful Cinderella. Johnny Depp was also perfectly cast as The Wolf and The Prince’s entertain in the wonderful Agony sequence. In fact, the only real quibble I had with the first half of the film was the decision to leave The Narrator in. Given that he didn’t play the part he was meant to play in Act 2 of the film, it just sounded silly to have him tell us what characters were about to do just before they did it and he threw me out of the story. The only other minor quibble I had was that Meryl Streep sounded a bit out of breath during her rapping sequence at the start.
On the other hand, Disney didn’t edit out the line, ‘he was robbing me, raping me,’ which I was certain they’d do. Actually, they left a lot in. Cinderella’s sisters still mutilate their feet to try to win The Prince, Rapunzel’s Prince still gets blinded by the angry Witch, and most importantly of all, they left Little Red Riding Hood’s sequence with The Wolf as an ode to emerging sexuality. I was dead certain they’d tone that controversy down. Johnny Depp was creepily pedophilic as he crooned Hello, Little Girl and when Little Red Hiding is rescued and later sings ‘And I know things now, many valuable things, that I never knew before…’ the Freudian overtones were still there. It was perfect.
Unfortunately, the second act of the film became a bit of a mess, and from what I’ve heard from many of my friends who haven’t seen the original musical, for them it was both incomprehensible and confusingly amoral. It all stems from the fact that they cut the Act 2 Prologue which shows what happens when the initial ‘ever after’ has started to fade. This is really important to the story because it explains why The Baker’s Wife strays and commits adultery with Cinderella’s Prince (because her baby won’t stop crying at all hours and her husband is too insecure to help her look after the baby) and because in cutting this song and later Agony Reprise (the line, ‘ah well… back to our wives…’ is deliciously ironic), we don’t get a sense of just how misogynistic and flighty The Princes are (In the original, Rapunzel’s Prince abandons her in the wood for Snow White and Rapunzel is left roaming the forest mad until she gets killed and Cinderella’s Prince seduces The Baker’s Wife after singing about how much he wants Sleeping Beauty). This omission seriously weakens the character of The Baker’s Wife and makes her seem like a right floozy, though poor Emily Blunt does her best with what she is left with. The cutting of the Rapunzel story arc also makes The Witch’s motives in Last Midnight less coherent, which in turn, weakens the ‘children should listen’ theme.
Still, it was all beautifully sung, and Meryl Streep seemed a lot more comfortable singing Children Should Listen and Last Midnight (my favourite song in the entire musical) then she did rapping at the start of the film. It is also a very complex musical, as all of Sondheim’s pieces are, and filming his stuff well is nigh on impossible, even if Burton did succeed with Sweeney Todd (I would argue this is because he is an auteur director though). The fairy story revisionism part of Into The Woods is only the tip of this rich play. Digging deeper, it is a Freudian look at relationships between parents and children, a post modern take on morality and the way we, as individuals, choose to tell our stories, and a parable about the need to take action, to journey, to do with all of your being (to go into the woods) even if doing so undoes you. I absolutely love that the musical and the film end on Cinderella’s final ‘I wish.’
I’ll leave you with the finale lines which sums up the entire point of the show:
Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take,
Wishes come true,
Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see
And turn against you…
Careful the tale you tell.
That is the spell.
Children will listen…
Though it’s fearful,
Though it’s deep, though it’s dark
And though you may lose the path,
Though you may encounter wolves,
You can’t just act,
You have to listen.
you can’t just act,
You have to think.
If Disney had taken as much care with the second half of the film as they did with the first half, this could have been a second Sweeney Todd. As it is, it’s a passable effort with moments of brilliance.
Into The Woods: 7/10 inky stars
I have read criticisms of this film that criticise it for not casting people of colour. Whilst I get where this criticism comes from and acknowledge it’s a valid one, given that diverse casting is a wider Hollywood problem, I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to single out this film for all of the blame.