Into the Woods

Into-the-Woods-2014-posterIf you’re a casual movie go-er, you may have noticed that there was a new Disney movie opening on Christmas Day. Probably one of those Princess movies that would force you to listen to another anthemic showstopper for the next six months. But if you are a fan and a freak for a certain Broadway genius whose music can move you to tears within seconds, your hands were sweating and your ticket stub limp as you entered the theatre, anticipation and fear causing you to wish the twenty-five minutes of previews would never end because you weren’t sure you were going to be able to handle what came next.

For Sondheim aficionados, the filming of Into the Woods had us excited, well, excited and scared. This classic piece of theatre opened on Broadway in 1987 and has been considered by many to be Sondheim’s greatest work. When the news came out that Disney was finally making it into a film, it seemed impossible that this could have a happy ending. Into the Woods may be about wishes and princesses, but it gets pretty dark, as fairy tales are wont to do. What if they turned it into Frozen In the Woods?

Everyone can slowly exhale. While the movie is not perfect, it captures most of the essence of the original show and doesn’t try to whitewash the angst that follows the happy ending. I wish some of the reviewers had done their homework and realized that this is a good thing. More on that later.

The cast was uniformly terrific. With the exception of Johnny Depp (who was completely forgettable as The Wolf), every person was perfect for the part and could actually sing. Meryl Streep was a great witch, although it’s hard to listen to those songs and not hear Bernadette Peters from the original cast. One review mentioned that Streep’s voice seemed “a little thin”: he must have been standing in the lobby when she blasted through “The Last Midnight”, because she has a powerful instrument that made the whole thing seem pretty apocalyptic. James Corden and Emily Blunt as The Baker and His Wife were charming together and Little Red Riding Hood practically stole the movie with her eyebrows. The kid playing Jack was way too young but his singing was fine, and I didn’t really care if Chris Pine (Prince Charming) could sing after he ripped open his shirt (turns out he can!).

As I feared, many reviews have mentioned how the first part was wonderful but everything falls apart in the second half and maybe they should have stopped before a major character got squished to death. To which I say: That was the whole point! Happy Ever After comes with consequences! This is a Sondheim show! Aaargh!

For me, the second half was actually better than the first, because the first hour seemed rushed. There are four interwoven stories that have to be introduced so it’s understandable, but the pace to get everything in place didn’t really give you time to savor the lyrics. I was grateful they didn’t try to dumb it down, although making Little Red Riding Hood and Jack younger lost some of the sexual subtext that is implied with the wolf and the giant’s wife. And they cut a few songs, which makes me sad (particularly the “Agony” reprise, which is hilarious). A lot of back story was lost by trying to cram it into two hours, but my guess is they figured fans of the show would already know it and newbies wouldn’t care all that much.

This is not a kid’s movie. There were people in the theatre with children under the age of five and a lot of restlessness in the audience. The two teenage girls in front of me who kept texting throughout the whole movie needed to be slapped up the side of the head like Jack’s mother kept doing in the film. A few people actually got up and left after (SPOILER ALERT!) the Baker’s Wife died. This story has so much going on in it and so many wonderful messages about parenting and life that I wanted to stand up and shout, “Listen to these words!! The man is a genius!”

Anyone who has read this far is probably a Sondheim fan, so let me be self-indulgent and speak to you as a kindred spirit. The man’s music and lyrics move me in ways that I cannot begin to express and I am constantly stunned when I listen to this score. Any parent who has ever sent a child off to camp or college or Brooklyn will immediately weep while listening to “Stay With Me”, a plea that your children never leave you that goes against every rule of good parenting. Or “Children Will Listen”, which is a primer on what you should be doing. Or the reassurance of “No One is Alone”, that no matter how many mistakes you make, you always carry those you’ve lost along the path with you. I can’t wait until the Into the Woods merchandise comes out, because I want a Sondheim doll of my own.

************************************ has been in hibernation lately because winter makes it feel like wearing sweat pants and sleeping on the couch. Also, directors don’t seem to be using hand held cameras anymore so they have pretty much rendered this site obsolete. But occasionally a film comes out that elicits a strong response and requires a review, queasiness be damned. So watch for an occasional post here but don’t set your expectations very high. I’m still wearing sweat pants.

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