Into the Woods (Review)

Into the Woods has long been one of my favorite musicals. The first hour of the movie version is a near-perfect adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's work.

If one is familiar with the original production, the first act translates beautifully to film and plays in a grand, "old-fashioned" movie musical manner. While cuts and changes to the story are noticeable, nothing feels glaringly omitted.

The only rather odd decision is to make Johnny Depp's Wolf look more human than animal. It renders the sexual implications of the Wolf's song, "Hello, Little Girl," even more apparent and creepy, especially since they've lowered the age of the actress playing Little Red Riding Hood.

Standout moments among many include the tremendously funny setting and staging for "Agony" and the ingenious visual choice for "On the Steps Of the Palace."

Emily Blunt is thoroughly enjoyable as The Baker's Wife and Chris Pine plays Cinderella's Prince Charming to the ultimate hilt. It will come as no surprise to anyone when I say that Meryl Streep is fantastic as The Witch.

Streep's modulations between tenderness and agonizing power during "Stay With Me" are nothing short of a master class in musical acting. Even more impressive is "Last Midnight." A literal special effects whirlwind is happening around Streep as she sings, but her vocals remain the genuine storm! She flat out Tears. It. Up!

As the film progressed and I was aware that "act one" was about to end, I was very curious as to how the filmmakers would handle the stark shift in tone for "act two."

The verdict is not very well; both in terms of storytelling and the alteration of the musical's original structure. The blows to the latter half of the story begin almost immediately where "act two" would have begun.

In the stage version, the song "So Happy" opens Act Two and makes it clear that a small passage of time has occurred since the breaking of The Witch's curse.

Cinderella and her Prince Charming have married and are living in the Prince's castle. Jack (of "Jack and the Beanstalk") and his mother enjoy newfound wealth, and The Baker and his wife are experiencing the joy of a new baby.

The film version explains and retains the updated status of most of those characters with voice-over as they're attending Cinderella's wedding. "So Happy" is cut.

The loss of the song is not a huge issue, as the exposition it covers could just as easily have been handled with voice-over narration and a minute or two of visuals. Unfortunately, the exposition is gone as well.

The "time jump" (small as it may be) is not accommodated, and without it, not only is the transition in tone from "act one" to "act two" incredibly abrupt, but the loss does some decent damage to the storyline for Cinderella in particular.

This is exemplified by Cinderella's later line of dialogue to Prince Charming, "My father's house was a nightmare; your house was a dream. Now I want something in between."

That line made sense on stage, because "So Happy" told the audience Cinderella had been living in the Palace for a bit of time. In the film, all we see is the wedding. We never see, or have any reference to Cinderella living as "the Princess in the Palace." The line, not to mention the film's reasoning for Cinderella's disillusionment with the Prince, no longer carries much (if any) weight.

I'm a bit shocked that neither librettist and screenwriter James Lapine or director Rob Marshall noticed that altering the timeline led the otherwise tightly woven narrative to have this rather noticeable plot hole!

Another plot removal is that of Rapunzel being killed by the giant, which seems to remove The Witch's motivations in the second half of the film. "Last Midnight" would have been even more powerful if The Witch's wound was more over the death of Rapunzel as opposed to Rapunzel merely running away with her Prince.

Since Rapunzel's Prince is never to be seen again in the film version, the second act reprise of "Agony" -- likely even funnier than its first appearance -- can no longer happen. Time considerations and streamlining of the narrative may also have had something to do with these decisions.

It's a shame though, because what is done with "Agony" in the first hour of the film is so successful. Revisiting it in order to "lighten things up" for the second hour would have been welcome. It also would have further punctuated just how much of a cad Cinderella's Prince is.

The most glaring deletion from the original score is "No More," which features The Baker in conversation with the ghost of his late father. I felt the loss of this one. The set-up is there, and it looked like the song was about to take place, but it doesn't.

Without "No More," a crucial turning point for The Baker and the underlying tone of parent-child relationships in the story is weakened. The weakening of this theme also robs the eventual use of "Children Will Listen" of any emotional or storytelling resonance.

Even "No One Is Alone", perhaps considered the score's most haunting piece, falls a bit flat because other elements that lead up to it have been discarded. It's a major bummer and a bit hard to understand why one of Sondheim's major themes for Into the Woods would be muted or watered down.

I expect that general audiences and moviegoers unfamiliar with the material will not notice most of what I have. Despite a disappointing second half, Into the Woods is highly entertaining on many levels and worth seeing.