Apr 9, 2015

The Way Is Clear, the Light Is Good, But It's Not Into the Woods

My review of the Disney film of Into the Woods is in the current issue of The Sondheim Review, and the editors have graciously allowed me to publish it in full here; it should be said that the magazine has also published a more upbeat counterpoint by my colleague Robert Faires. You can order an issue here.

“A thicket’s no trick./Is it thick?” one prince sings to another, in an inspired bit of fairy-tale shoptalk in the stage musical Into the Woods. His brother replies: “It’s the thickest.” The first prince delivers his advice matter-of-factly, as if from under the hood of a jalopy: “The quickest/Is pick it/Apart with a stick.”

One of the best things that can be said about Disney’s diverting but disappointing new film adaptation of Into the Woods is that, for all the violence it has wrought on the original stage version in the name of cinematic clarity, it has not picked apart Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 masterwork with a stick — or chain-sawed it or deforested it or whatever image of wanton destruction you prefer. The film has pruned and reshaped the original material with evident care and intention, if sometimes arguable taste. Lapine’s screenplay, in particular, does yeoman’s work in re-sorting and re-braiding the tangled strands of his original play script; I’ve never seen a stage version put his clever, interlocking plot elements across as cleanly and clearly. This pays rich dividends in the penultimate “Your Fault” number, in which the show’s characters engage in a Mexican standoff of entirely plausible cross-accusation.

On the other hand, reduced to its plot, Into the Woods can come off as a somewhat tame, preachy riff on the Brothers Grimm, at least in an age of Frozen and TV’s Once Upon a Time. What sets the original Into the Woods apart, with all due respect to Lapine, is Sondheim: his dense, sharp, propulsive score and his witty, aphoristic, shape-shifting lyrics. Probably the simplest way to sum up my criticism of the film is to say that there’s just not enough Sondheim in it, and his voice — both lyrically and musically — is sorely missed. It’s not just the cut songs and mostly absent full-chorus numbers, some of which survive in part but in oddly truncated forms; it’s that the film doesn’t sound scored by Sondheim in the way the stage version does (despite orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the original musical). Arranger David Krane — credited with the musical score adaptation — has repurposed some of the unsung songs into instrumental accompaniments (and even tossed in a nice, if jarring, quote from A Little Night Music), but he’s also conjured some conventional film music out of what sound to me like generic, distinctly un-Sondheimian materials. I’ve never been a special fan of the Baker’s father-son number, “No More,” but it serves a crucial function in the show that is now covered by a perfunctory scene of James Corden’s Baker chatting with his dad’s ghost, then crying alone over some sad music. In a purported musical, it feels decidedly odd to have such a big emotional moment go by without a song.

This points to the central problem with director Rob Marshall’s film: If you simply reduce the quantity of singing or try to trim this nearly through-composed piece into a series of dialogue scenes and numbers, then the instances in which characters do sing rather than speak take on overloaded significance. It’s a testament to the formal daring of the original show that many of its songs just don’t hold up that way; they’re not big standalone numbers, but are instead woven into the fabric of the score’s near-recitative repetition and thematic development. Too much of the Into the Woods film plays like a relatively conventional fairy-tale remix punctuated with the occasional much-less-conventional song; both of these elements are reasonably strong and earn their keep, but this kind of divided vision is arguably no longer Into the Woods, nor does it work all that well on its own terms.

How does it fare as a movie musical adaptation? It’s better than most (nearly all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon fared worse, in my opinion), but not as good as the best (Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof and Hedwig and the Angry Inch would go on my shortlist of best film musicals adapted from the stage, though it should be said that Marshall’s snappy film of Chicago deserves kudos, as well). And while the material resists conventional song-and-scene adaptation, songs that are more self-contained fare quite well here: “Moments in the Woods,” “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Last Midnight.”

The casting is more variable in quality than might be wished, but thankfully the women are strong all around, especially Meryl Streep’s capacious, rangy Witch — there are few, if any, performers who could give such an outsized character so many wrinkles of nuance — and Emily Blunt’s limpid, nervy Baker’s Wife. If Anna Kendrick seems overly chirpy as Cinderella, it’s of a piece with her performance, which feels authentically youthful, guileless and distracted.

Speaking of youth, the casting of actual youngsters (Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford) as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood makes obvious filmic sense as the fictive, grief-stricken band of survivors assembles around the story’s climactic giant crisis — children in jeopardy and all that — but that’s about the best I can say about their presence here.

I wish I could say good things about Johnny Depp’s weirdly dandy-ish wolf — he was much better in Tim Burton’s sinuous Gothic film of Sweeney Todd — but unfortunately he’s the least of the film’s male casting problems. The princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen) are, in a word, terrible; parodies of stock heroes, these roles wither when played winkingly, but Marshall has encouraged Pine and Magnussen to camp it up from their first entrance, with immediately diminishing returns. (It’s probably a mercy that the reprise of “Agony,” which contains the above exchange about picking through a thicket, was axed.)

Corden is not so much miscast as the Baker as underused. Deprived of his big 11 o’clock number, he’s left to caper about the woods empathetically and good-naturedly, clambering from one story point to another. He epitomizes the film of Into the Woods, really: He’s game, he’s competent, he’s a softy at heart, and though he can sing a bit, he’s all about the story. Fine and well, as far as it goes. But if the film version proves anything, it’s that with the original Into the Woods score — probably Sondheim’s thickest thicket — the trick is that it can’t really be picked apart, neither with a stick nor with the deftest of screenplays.