At The Movies: Into the Woods (2014)

intothewoods2014

Into The Woods

★★★½☆

2014 • 124 minutes • Walt Disney Pictures

While I was a theater kid in high school and college, it wasn’t because I was the kind of kid who put on skits for the family and adored The Wizard of Oz. It was because the high school debate team, after I proved to completely suck at actual debating skills and not suck at acting, had no idea what to do with me and the high school theater director kind of did. So when I turned up for my big girl acting class, the one I had to audition to get into, I found myself surrounded by the common American theater kid—bright, chatty, performing types who talked about famous plays and musicals I had never heard of. I was so ashamed of how little I knew that I never asked, so I only learned that Stephen Sondheim existed when the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd came out. (Tiring of Tim Burton, I immediately began delivering spirited rejections of the film’s hotification of Todd and Lovett to anyone who brought it up. I was incredibly charming and popular, as you can imagine.)

But at least one theater kid took pity on me, and I eventually watched the filmed version of Into The Woods in said theater kid’s basement during a slumber party. It became and remains my Sondheim musical, although I’ve largely left theater behind at this point. And so when Disney announced that there was an Into the Woods film adaptation in the works I was… excited. Movie adaptations of musicals (or even just officially released video of the musical itself) are fantastic, especially when you haven’t got a chance of seeing a show unless it rolls into town.

Others were less excited.

While there was plenty of fevered, fervent discussion over whether or not Disney would defang the darkly fractured fairy tales before the release of Into The Woods, that’s actually turned out not to be a huge problem. I mean, it certainly is one: Little Red Riding Hood’s first act arc has been completely drained of its sexual subtext because she’s played by an actual child and not an adult, but that, at least, makes sense. No, the larger problem is that Into the Woods is so utterly a musical that a successful film adaptation would require deeply re-imagining how it’s staged.

Case in point: “Prologue,” the musical’s opening and establishing number. The original Broadway production placed all four stories (Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Baker and his Wife) on stage at once, as the song passes and jumps from character to character. It’s a very pure representation of Sondheim’s famously spiky songs. And it works, because everyone’s in frame, as it were. There are ways to capture some of that magic on film, but Rob Marshall chooses instead to cut between all of the characters. Both Sondheim and the immensely game cast are enough to rise above it, but it still made me wish for a director bold enough to pursue the willful, purposeful artificiality of the show instead of the realism this film appears to be going for.

And by realism, I, of course, mean brown and poorly lit. I’m all for setting the tone, but the entire film seems to be set at either very early morning or dusk. The overcast look robs the second act (here heartily compressed) of its atmosphere. If huddling in a forest with the threat of death over your head looks the same as romping through the same forest with the hope that you may be able to have a child after all, things start to get a little flat.

At least the cast is able and game. James Corden (coming soon to American late night, bless) is, as I had hoped, a fantastic Baker, and Emily Blunt is equally fantastic as the Baker’s Wife. Their chemistry and harmony is simply darling; if you don’t think their rendition of “It Takes Two” isn’t adorable, we’re going to need to talk it out like adults. Tracy Ullman is wonderful as Jack’s Mother. And I am going to pretend Johnny Depp wasn’t in this movie, which is quite easy to do, since his scene lasts all of five minutes, and instead focus on Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s deliriously and joyously camp rendition of “Agony.” Because that was amazing.

Ultimately, the film does not match up to the stage show, but we’re lucky enough to have a filmed version of the stage show. I have a feeling this film will be the gateway to Sondheim for a lot of burgeoning theater children—a bit like the stage show was mine.

I saw this film in theaters.

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