I told myself that I wouldn’t take notes. Rachel doesn’t like it when I take notes during movies. But the only other people in the nearly-empty theater were seated a few rows in front of us, and from the moment I heard the first, familiar notes of Into the Woods I knew that I wouldn’t be able to hold back.
A little background, perhaps. I have never seen Sondheim’s masterpiece performed live on stage. I have, however, spent the equivalent of weeks watching the 1991 PBS American Playhouse recording of the original Broadway cast (on VHS first, then DVD). As a teenager I commandeered the soundtrack from our family collection, playing it over and over until I knew every inflection of every word of every song (tip of the hat to Bernadette Peters and her beans). Dialogue between the characters found its way into dialogue between my family and I (“Worrying will do you no good.”). The roles of the Baker and Jack made themselves comfortable in my Top-Ten-All-Star-Dream-Parts (Harold Hill reigns uncontested in the number one slot).
I didn’t go see movie version of Into the Woods on opening night. After viewing the shattered Tiffany window that was Les Mis, I had little interest in witnessing another act of musical vandalism. Did I want to use my money to show Hollywood that there’s an audience for movie musicals? Yes. Did I want to experience a fresh take on the characters and music? Yes. Did I want to see a “marquee” actor or actress hijack the picture and mangle a leading role? No. Did I want to witness true genius sacrificed to the twin gods of Pop Culture and Political Correctness? A thousand times, no.
But, then, that’s the trade-off. This time I went.
Rather than give you the rough play-by-play I whipped up in the theater, I’ll organize my observations here first by character, then by plot. Without further adieu…
The Baker: A-
Good job. I enjoyed the performance and his voice wasn’t all that bad. Only two points kept the baker from getting full marks. First, I didn’t like the way they treated the Baker’s father issues. I felt like the Baker’s rancor toward his father went too far. Second, and this may not have been in the Baker’s control, I lamented the removal of one of my favorite songs, “No More,” in which the Baker gains reconciliation with his father. Sure, it’s tough to have a song about a character that’s not present. But it was such a good—and important—song.
The Baker’s Wife: A-
The Baker’s Wife does a good job making the character her own. One point—I thought that she did a better job when she was alone on screen than when she was interacting with other characters.
Red had her moments, but they were largely overshadowed by stylistic mistakes. First, a comment on her wardrobe. Red cape, powder blue leggings, and high-strapped red boots?
Second, her voice. She belts every song. At first it was a little irritating, but then I realized, well, that’s Red for you. She’s an in-your-face personality, so belting songs is consistent with her character. The aspect of her singing that I could not get over was her application of pop scoops. Bad form, Red.
Third, her acting. Wooden. Scripted. Note: The blame for Red’s forgettable performance may not be entirely on her crimson-draped shoulders. More on that later.
Run home, Jack! Run home, Jack! Sorry, wrong movie. Jack may not have hit a home run in Into the Woods, but he certainly crushed a triple. This Jack does a particularly good job growing up over the course of the story. He starts off very clearly a child, and ends the film very nearly a man. That’s not an easy task for a young actor. On this point, I used to have a hard time seeing the Jack of the PBS version as a child: the actor who plays him is just so old. It was nice to feel that yes, Jack was just a boy.
Jack would’ve had a solid A if not for the scooping in “Giants in the Sky.”
I didn’t watch Pitch Perfect. I know that’s an issue some people are having with this Cinderella. I thought she was good in Into the Woods. In fact, the only comment I had about Cinderella was that her song of indecision, “On the Steps of the Palace,” was well done. I considered it one of the best scenes of the film.
The Wolf: C+
I couldn’t shake off the image of Captain Jack Sparrow in a zoot suit. They could’ve gotten someone else to do this part just as well. The “star power” only distracted.
The Princes: B-
Meh. Neither had a voice. “Agony” was humorous enough, I guess. I don’t see why they couldn’t have gotten Cinderella’s prince to play the part of the Wolf, as is tradition. I think the connection between those two characters teaches an important lesson that is otherwise missed.
The Witch: F
Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Meryl Streep. Even so, I went into this movie fully open to liking her and being ready to swallow my pride and admit that she did an excellent job. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do that. She was—by far—the worst thing that happened to this movie. Nearly killed the whole thing. The funny thing is, I thought that if she tanked, it would be her singing that was her ruination. Wrong. Her singing—after a score alteration and some post-production magic—was fine. Not spectacular, but fine.
Her acting was atrocious. She got her character abysmally wrong. Streep played a psychologically disturbed sorceress. This approach severely undermined the character depth, her dialogue, and the greater plot.
Every time she appeared on screen, I thought, “Wow, she’s annoying.” Also, when she transformed at the conclusion of the first act, I thought, “Huh. Nothing changed.” So much for that. She also delivered the single worst line of the movie, “Oh. My. God.” That wasn’t in the original. It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t funny. It was childish and out of character. Religion (and by implication, references to deity) and fairy tales are not mixed; they operate in two distinctly separate spheres, lest children (or adults, for that matter) mistake one for the other, i.e. God working “magic.”
That wraps up the characters nicely. If I didn’t mention a particular character, it was either because they were fine, insignificant, or both. Time for general observations.
My mom, blessed with perfect pitch, mentioned this point to me before I saw the movie—the sung notes are very clear. I agree. Whether it was auto-tuning or the luxury of multiple takes or something else, you can hear some notes sung that you don’t hear well (or at all) in the stage production. That’s nice. Another point about the music—it was very nice to hear a full orchestra tackle the score, rather than just a pit orchestra.
The Red/Wolf digestion scene is awkward. I don’t understand why Disney very obviously put a lot of effort into generating a visually stunning fairy-tale world, only to revert back to stage effects for this one scene (flowing fabric, representative of the belly of the Wolf).
I loved the death of the giantess. In the PBS version, Jack slays the giantess with a blow to the head using a club. That’s fine, but that’s all there is to it. There’s nothing more. On the other hand, the Disney version surprisingly invokes a David versus Goliath motif by having Jack slay the Giantess with a stone and a sling. Well done.
The major difference between the movie and the stage version is the complete elimination of the Narrator. This was an artistic decision that, unfortunately, created more problems than it solved. One of the brilliant elements of the play is that it exists on two planes—the fairy-tale world (inhabited by witches and bakers and the like, interacting in a fantastic forest) and the real-world (inhabited by you and me, sitting in our seats). The Narrator is the bridge between these two worlds. Much of the magic of Into the Woods—narratively speaking—happens in that liminal space the Narrator occupies: the threshold between fantasy and reality. The audience is only vaguely aware of the rules that operate the fairy-tale world, and the fantasy characters are only somewhat mindful of the rules that operate the real-world. As an audience, we laugh and we cry and we hold our breath in those moments when the two worlds collide. We are wary of the Witch because she seems most alert to the existence of our own world. We laugh at the cynicism of Red because she seems to embody the personality, if not experience, of our own world.
The movie version, of course, is set entirely in the woods. Sheared of the real-world plane, some crucial characters and lines fall flat. I first realized this when Prince #2 discovers Rapunzel. In the stage version he exclaims, “Rapunzel! Rapunzel! What a strange name!” The audience laughs because halfway through the line the Prince channeled the real-world, and it’s at odds with his initial reaction. In the movie version, Disney was obligated to omit this line because in the fairy-tale world, Rapunzel is not a strange name. No laughs.
Red is, perhaps, the ultimate victim of this decision. Stripped of the strength of her audience, her lines come across stiff and out-of-place. Take, for example, the scene in which Cinderella is conversing with her birds in front of the other characters. At the end of the avian exchange, Red deadpans, “You can talk to birds?” In the stage version, this line is hilarious—it’s exactly what you or I might say in such a situation. But when Red delivers this line in the movie, it falls flat. After all, what’s so odd about talking with animals in a fairy-tale world?
The Witch is also hit hard by this omission, but it is somewhat less noticeable due to the substantial weight of her role and the sheer number of lines she’s given.
In a single sentence:
It could have been better, but it was not unpleasant.