INTO THE WOODS (2014)

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Director: Rob Marshall
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 125 min

In a small village at the edge of the woods live a baker and his wife who long for a child. When they learn that a witch has placed a curse on their house which can only be broken in three days on the night of the blue moon, they rush into the woods to collect the ingredients they will need for the magic potion. Their paths cross with Cinderella, Jack and his cow, and a little girl in a red cape–all struggling to make their wishes come true. But even wishes have consequences.

The play Into the Woods is my favorite musical, so it is difficult for me to separate the cuts that disappointed me because I happen to love certain lines and songs from the cuts that actually hurt the story. But I think I am being fair when I say the film was enjoyable and true to the spirit of the play, but the play is definitely better.

Let me start with the good. The screenplay was written by the original playwright (James Lapine), and Sondheim adapted the music and lyrics. Meryl Streep’s witch was arguably better than Bernadette Peters (who originated the role). Lilla Crawford was a phenomenal Red Riding Hood, never faltering on the difficult vocal lines. Young Daniel Huttlestone as Jack held his own on a vocal part written for an adult tenor. Although I missed the snarkiness of Joanna Gleeson’s Baker’s Wife, Emily Blunt’s realistic and powerful portrayal fit with the overall more serious tone of the film. Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella was more realistic and nuanced than Kim Crosby’s (again, a trend of the film). Tracy Ullman was perfect as Jack’s mother. Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine were appropriately hilarious as the two princes.

But the cuts (many of them necessary to translate into the film medium) took away some of the thematic depth of the play. The play is divided into two complete acts. Act one shows a complete set of fairytales from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” In fact, act one is often performed on its own. Act two shows what happens after happily ever after. The characters all have new wishes (getting their first wish hasn’t satisfied them). They feel trapped by their stories and wind up feeding the Narrator (a human character) to the giant. Having a narrator as a character wouldn’t have worked the same way in a film. His character is eliminated. And the two acts are squished together into one continuous story arc, which mostly works. But the idea of the secondary wishes is lost. The prince’s remark “I thought once I found you that I would never wish for more” applies only to himself in the film. The Baker’s Wife and the Baker never transition from new baby bliss to bitter squabbling, giving less context to later events. And because the Baker’s father is mostly eliminated as a character, references to the Baker’s fear of becoming his father are awkwardly direct and heavy-handed. Rapunzel gets a happy ending, which could diminish the witch’s cause for despair (and eliminates the grief-stricken “Children Won’t Listen” which is reprised more optimistically at the end of the play) but Meryl Streep actually handles it really well so I wasn’t too disappointed on that front.

Am I being nitpicky? Yes. It was a good film–more family-friendly than the play, enjoyable, very well-acted and well-sung. It may be even more accessible than the play–less thought required to puzzle through the meaning and numerous symbolic connections between acts one and two. But it is the thought-provoking nature of the play that makes it truly brilliant and that is lessened in the film.

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