Wishing for more from ‘Into the Woods’

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Before outlining a response to the recent movie adaptation of the musical “Into the Woods,” I want to draw out some general slips in some of the approaches to the movie.

Some were surprised how a Disney movie retained the inversion of fairy tales and happy endings that was so fresh in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical. Disney’s track record with fairy tales, happy endings and princesses is suspect after all.

Others claimed the Disney movie dampened the musical’s more overt sexual subjects. It did, but the audience is smart enough to see that the character(s) who insists “so many (paths) worth exploring/just one would be so boring” and “all we have are moments…/one would be so boring” is seducing both Little Red and the Baker’s Wife among other family-friendly tweaks.

Some fans of the musical are more generous, believing there to be little departure from the stage to big screen in story and tone beyond the absence of some song or reprise. Disney gets props in these circles for “staying true.”

For those responding to the adaptation who are unfamiliar with the Sondheim-Lapine musical, a different, stupid but not unexpected thing occurs – Disney gets blamed for what was an achievement in the musical or some such aberration because the speaker couldn’t grasp the story or wasn’t sufficiently familiar with the play before.

Sometimes these protests issue from the notion that the movie adaptation succeeds a long skirmish over branding between Disney and Sondheim. And most of these objections agree to the wrong terms. For what could be better for a major motion picture studio than for its product to spark discussions of the studio brand? This is not unusual for it is an American movie system and branding can produce multi-million dollar sales for a blue dress with the name Elsa tagged on it (my wife claims some subtle “Frozen” allusions cropped up in “Into the Woods” though I missed them).

What is the story really about? Lots and you can spend hours in pleasant discussion with friends about this. Here’s a few thoughts.

The Sondheim-Lapine musical does not work under a good vs. evil dichotomy. In fact, the play directly seeks to trample that dualism. In the play, the noble are exposed as fraudulent and murderous while witches and giants are revealed to be reasonable and just. It’s not a sinister inversion, either. All of the characters – those still living – join in laying blame in “Your Fault,” a song which ultimately acquits none.

And these fairy tale characters were never as noble as their modern Disney-influenced incarnations anyway, making absurd the criticism of Disney’s “Into the Woods” movie as some subtle or dark amoral tale. Many of the original fairy tales placed sinners in temptation’s path and watched them fall so we could learn with them how to stand back up again.

IntoTheWoods1The Sondheim-Lapine musical followed this model with a story of characters who are cultivating discernment. Little Red and the Baker’s Wife each emerge from their encounters with the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince with spiritual clarity, but that still doesn’t stop one from becoming a murderer and the other from suffering the wages of sin.

The Baker’s and Cinderella’s response to their younger counterparts in “No One is Alone” is to remind them “you move just a finger/say the slightest word/something’s bound to linger…/no one acts alone,” a call not simply for the conclusion of blood feuds but for true peace, people as partners serving a larger story. That’s echoed again with a hope for the righteousness of future generations in the “Finale”: “Careful the wish you make/wishes are children/careful the path they take/wishes come true/not free.”

In the movie, one of the chief differences is the absence of the Narrator. (In major stage productions of “Into the Woods,” the double-casting of the Mysterious Man – the Baker’s father – and the Narrator didn’t last as long as the tradition of double-casting the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince.) The Narrator, who is also the Baker’s father, is dragged off by other players to be stomped by the Giant’s Wife, which is a pointed reminder that storytellers are morally responsible and yet the Narrator must be replaced by someone, and his son, the Baker, succeeds him at the end of the play. The movie adaptation discards this nuance while other films such as Wes Anderson’s recent “Grand Budapest Hotel” and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” convey contained narratives and also question the way the story is told.

The absence of this comment on storytelling in the movie is only one of the reasons why I believe watching a stage production of “Into the Woods” or even a filmed production is a much more entertaining and rewarding experience. The “Into the Woods” adaption (directed by Marshall on a screenplay by Lapine) simply follows its source material too closely. There’s nothing fresh in the movie adaptation that expands on or departs from the source, resulting in a withered story that lives only in the shadow of its theatrical predecessor.

Beyond some lazy editing choices that left me wondering how characters are moving from point A to point B in some scenes, the adaptation aims only for a blandly cute variation of the play’s songs and situations. For example, “Agony,” which here features the fine physical comic talent of Chris Pine, is wailed by the two fops atop – wait for it – a waterfall.

One of the most consistently frustrating decisions in Marshall’s “Into the Woods” is the creation of spectacular entrances and exits for each movie star, which disrupts the movie’s (and music’s!) pace and gets old quickly. Making Meryl Streep as the Witch disappear in a flourish of swirling wind, mud, leaves, whatever, every time she leaves a scene does not add to the experience of fantasy neither does moving Chris Pine in well-favoring slow-motion. Each song in the movie moves tediously through its verses and uninspired scenes but always concludes à la Johnny Depp as the Wolf with some howling, fabulous finish.

I wish…

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