Adaptations: Into the Woods

All in all, Into the Woods is– fine. The cast are all good to great, everything looks very pretty. But frustratingly, I think if a little more time had been spent thinking not about just putting the musical onto the screen, but adapting it to the screen, it could have been a truly great musical movie. 

What I mean by this is, Into the Woods‘ jokes, subversions, and structure are built on top of theatrical tropes, not least the device of the intermission itself. It’s a musical that’s made to be cut in half, and its structure within the acts– especially the first– relies on repetitions, reprises, montage-esque group numbers, and direct address. Rob Marshall did not grapple with how to translate any of these devices to film, beyond cut-away montages for the group numbers and changing some direct-address songs to be delivered to other characters. But more than the slight awkwardness of these choices, it’s missing the point: Into the Woods riffs not just on fairy tales, but on the way those stories are told in the theatre. I don’t know what cinematic devices could replace things like the false ending before intermission, but I’m sure such tropes exist, and utilizing them to turn Into the Woods into a movie that comments on film in the same way the play comments on theatre would have pushed it, in my opinion, over the line into becoming the movie musical that finally cracks the code. This might also have forced the filmmakers to think harder about the story they were telling, and pushed them away from some cuts and changes that ultimately left the second half, which is supposed to be the weighty one, feeling a bit bloodless. 

This hinges, in part, on a decision that I thought I would hate but instead found almost worked: actual kids playing Jack and Little Red Ridinghood. After Little Red’s number, I was firmly in the “no” camp– the song lost all of its hesitant glances towards impending adulthood, and the sexual elements just felt like an unfortunate implication. But after both her and Jack (who I felt straddled the becoming-an-adult line better than Red) delivered their songs to the Baker, I began to be intrigued by the idea of the Baker becoming a sort of semi-unwilling receptacle for children’s stories, and hoped it would maybe replace stepping into his father/narrator’s shoes as a reason for becoming a storyteller himself at the end. It also made me look anew at the progression of the lessons learned, seeing more clearly that in the first half, the children (and to a great extent, the Baker and his Wife, and the Witch as well, are still like children) come of age and learn their expected lessons. And then in the second half, the adults realize that the lessons don’t stop now that you’re grown. Unfortunately, that’s not quite what happened. 

Yes, they don’t kill Rapunzel. And it doesn’t work. The Witch learning that you have to let your children go is easy and boring; the Witch finally being proven right that the world is dangerous, but finding only loss in the victory is complicated and interesting and much sadder. Losing the reprise of “Agony” also doesn’t work, and not just because it clearly would have been amazing– but because you lose not only the comedy, but the weight behind the Prince’s later confession that he thought marriage would mean an end to longing. And finally, while losing “No More” almost works, it’s just a huge shame, and makes the Baker’s decision to return feel far too quick and easy. All of these choices combined to make the problems of the second half feel much simpler and shallower than those of the first– which is, of course, the opposite of how it ought to feel. 

There’s a lot of good too, mostly in the performances– which might be a first in 21st century movie musicals. I was completely enamored with James Cordon and Emily Blunt’s Baker and Wife, and I thought the decision to have Cordon narrate was the best thing you can do if you can’t have the narrator visible. They had fantastic chemistry and the exactly right sense of partnership. I only wish that Lapine hadn’t felt the apparent need to water down their prickliness from his original script: they never really fight here, never snap or get angry, and there’s something lost (particularly in “Moments in the Woods”) when their fantastic teamwork isn’t paired with reminders that their marriage is also difficult, and they don’t always get along. But Emily Blunt escapes Joanna Gleason’s long shadow, and James Cordon made me badly wish I could have seen his rendition of “No More.” 

 Anna Kendrick is utterly charming, though Cinderella probably suffered most from the oddly quick and shallow feel of what would be act two. Aside from my total shock that Chris Pine can sing, there’s nothing to say about “Agony.” You just have to see it.

And the film itself is unquestionably worth seeing. But I suspect those who are encountering Into the Woods for the first time on screen will need to look to the stage to understand what has made it an enduring classic of musical theatre. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s