Adapting musicals is, of course, a tricky business but with the right screen writer, cinematographer and director can pull it off with ease. Films like Chicago, The Sound of Music, even Cinderella prove that it is a task that can be down with grace; even clunkier messes like Sweeney Todd, Mamma Mia and Les Miserables keep honest to their musical roots while being fairly entertaining.
Let’s take a look at Into the Woods.
The basic plot, without giving too much away, is the telling of the stories of The Baker and his Wife, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella all in one go. The stories end happily, and yet, once the characters have gotten everything they ever wanted, their wishes fall apart and reality sets in.
Into the Woods should, in theory, not be that hard to adapt. In fact, it is the perfect show for extra budgeting and special effects to bring the story alive. And yet, somehow it all manages to fall apart, mainly because of how the music is done. It also doesn’t help that I am very familiar with the original Broadway production, meaning I have a quality point of reference that others may not.
The big problem with the musical numbers is that the transitions feel clunky, in part because some of the numbers are sung at other characters for no reason. I think they were trying to make the songs have a purpose but broke the rules of the musical, which is people just sing for no reason and we all accept it, and somehow made it super awkward. At least they kept the number everyone was in love with which was “Moment in the Woods,” which is not as risqué as keeping “Hello Little Girl” for Disney no matter how much people want to pretend it is.
The number that really stands out is the song “Agony” between the two princes as they chew scenery and ham it up like nobody’s business, though the equally hilarious reprise of the song is missing. The intro and “You Are Not Alone” also does a good job because no one is trying to sing at each other awkwardly, nor are there any major changes to how the song flows (though the musical composition gives a finality to some verses that shouldn’t have them).
Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, and James Corden all perform well, even though I had some initial misgivings about Streep’s singing. Would it have really killed them to use Bernadette Peters instead? Kendrick is convincing as Cinderella, and while Blunt and Corden overact a bit during the singing, it ultimately works in their favor. Chris Pine is not a great singer but he’s damn entertaining, Tracey Ullman is fun, and Lilla Crawford captures Little Red’s snarky and arrogant innocence to a tee.
Daniel Huttlestone as Jack though really grates the ear with his childish “twrrible” and strong accent. I always likes the interpretation of Jack as a teenager or older, which gives his penchant for mistakes and belief in magic more of a comic air. Also, Johnny Depp is flat out terrible as the Wolf, and his part is thankfully very brief. His era is over, dammit, stop trying to jump start his career and let him fade into obscurity.
A lot is cut out from the original musical, mostly from Act 2, for the sake of time but it is sorely missed and the message isn’t as poignant without it. The lack of the baker’s father makes it harder to address the fears of fatherhood and falling into the same cycles, and not-death of Rapunzel doesn’t show the consequences of the witch’s overly protective mothering. Front-loading the first part gets us to know characters we already know is a waste, the juicy bits are in Act 2 which is rushed for time. Also the finale, “Children Will Listen” is mangled as the song is sung not by the whole cast mysteriously returned from the dead (which was always awesome) but by Streep as the camera pans over the forest and into the sky.
If there are any nice things to say about this film, and there are, it almost all lies in production values. The sets are goregeous, costuming well done and fitting for each character, the direction and framing is able to capture some great moments. The lighting is also well used and the colors spot on for both the large and extravagant or the small and desolate areas, which really adds to the, thankfully, dark tone of the film.
Overall, Into the Woods is not the magical journey it promised. Once it gets to the meat of the story, it falls apart with weird song transitions, over-acting and bizarre choreography choices, and overall lack of whimsy, all things the original play handled expertly. If you want to see the story for yourself, I recommend checking out the original 1988 version on DVD rather than wasting your time and money on, at best, a B-grade copy of it.
– Strong singing.
– Excellent production values.
– Fine acting overall.
– Good tone.
– Huttlestone and Depp were poor casting choices.
– Song transitions/choreography are weird.
– Good parts of the original are cut out.