Friday, January 2, 2015

Into the Woods

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. 


  1. Thank you for your review. While I enjoy Disney movies, I always know I am getting the 'sanitized' version of the original story. It's all about the audience and what sells. (see my blog comments about my being 'too old' for the desired A and E network audience.)

  2. Your reviews are always so eloquent. I'm not familiar with the original works but am not suprised as to the "nice" recap. So much these days is "lost in translation" as Ms. Hammond stated above about what sells. Have not seen Mockingjay yet. I know you are opposed to 2 pt. saga endings (as am I) but was wondering your thoughts on part 1.

  3. Thnks so much for the heads-up. I thought, 'yummy, another Sondheim movie' but it sounds like they've macerated it. ITW was never my favourite Sondheim: I saw it on Broadway in about 88 ( I think it swept the Tonys that year) and yes, the Narrator is key. But the second act is the whole point of it. Half an hour to the 'what happened afterwards'? It's a travesty! Have they cut Prince Charming's line when arguing with whichever princess he married (My dear, I was born to be charming, not sincere)?

    Ah well. Once I realised Ms Streep was in it, I wouldnt have gone anyway.

    A big disappointment to start the year, then.

  4. Huh. Like you, I had experience with the play before the film but couldn't remember a whole lot about it. But I liked the movie - it did feel a little patchy towards the end but I know I was never going to be super happy. It's a story about consequences so that had to be shown. But I do wish it had been carried to the extreme it is in the play. Things felt a little too light.

  5. Now I want to see it. I wasn't sure I did but now I want to evaluate it.