Many years ago I watched the American Playhouse version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods for an elective college course. An avid fan of fairy tale adaptations and Sondheim's work, I remember enjoying the experience and to this day I have a hazy sort of love for the story I wish I remembered better. So when I saw the preview for the new Disney adaptation, I felt nothing but excitement to once more see this story come to life.
And now having seen the film, I can honestly say it was . . . nice. Which left something of a bitter aftertaste in my mouth, for I'm fairly well versed in Sondheim and Lapine's work and it usually feels a lot more than . . . nice.
Something about the movie just felt off. The characters were likable. Emily Blunt in particularly impressed me with her comical and endearing version of the Baker's Wife. And while I'm getting a little bored watching Johnny Depp play a never-ending supply of quirky and strange characters (which he continues to do brilliantly, if monotonously), I'm always a fan of Meryl Streep's work. Though even that felt somehow just . . . nice.
Note: Spoilers Ahead
As we left the theater, my husband and I both commented that we would have been fine if the movie had ended a half-hour earlier with the wedding of Cinderella and her Prince, when all good characters were happy and all the bad characters were punished. Maybe a little bland, but that ending would have a least fit the story they presented us with. Instead, the last half hour felt messy and out of place.
But thinking about it later, something about that statement felt wrong. I'm rarely a fan of cookie-cutter endings, and if there's one thing I never expect of Sondheim's work, it's banality. So I went to the internet for some answers and a little refresher course on the real Into the Woods.
For those of you who know the original story, is it any wonder it felt like something was off about the movie? They cut out most of the content. The Little Red Riding Hood pedophelia. Rapunzel's death. And of course they axed the role of the narrator all together (who I recall being my favorite part of the play). They kept the general plot and many of the songs, but they stripped the film of it's meaning. Granted, the actual content is much too mature for a PG rating, but then why in God's name did they make the movie PG to begin with?
It seems to me that they had two options: A) make the movie a PG, Disney-fied version and have everyone end up happily ever after, or B) give it a more mature rating and film it as Sondheim and Lapine originally intended. Instead the movie winds up somewhere in between, and just doesn't quite jibe.
It's a story that doesn't lend itself well to the feel-good family romp they were aiming for. Though they did their best to white-wash the songs and substituted younger actors for traditionally older ones, the suggestive lyrics don't go unnoticed. It winds up a muddled mess in which the character's motives are unclear and the audience is left wondering if they're missing part of the story. Which in fact, they are.
Like I said, the film is . . . nice. And the songs are terrific. But in the future I'll be sticking to Into the Woods on Broadway.