Some Disenchanted Evening
By Adam Nayman
Into the Woods
Dir. Rob Marshall, U.S., Walt Disney Pictures
“You have to deal with reality.” So said Stephen Sondheim at Sardi’s in June of this year, shrugging off the horrified reactions of supporters who’d learned that Walt Disney Pictures’ big-screen adaptation of his Broadway show Into the Woods would feature significantly less sex and death than its Tony-winning incarnation. As recounted in Larissa McFarquhar’s New Yorker dispatch “Master Class,” Sondheim explained that he not only didn’t mind the changes that the studio planned to make to Into the Woods but that he’d eagerly signed off on the process. The goal, of course, was to render the material more accessible to a mass audience. When asked how such changes could ever be justified to disappointed diehards, the great composer got philosophical: “You have to explain to them that censorship is part of our puritanical ethics,” he said. “It’s something that they’re going to have to deal with.” In other words: careful the things you say—children will listen.
A genuinely great theatrical artist whose previous collaborations with moviemakers have historically yielded mixed results, Sondheim has every right to mutilate his own work or else outsource the violence to another party, especially one willing to pay a pretty penny for it (more than some magic beans, one imagines). And so long as he doesn’t end up crying wolf about the final result, he doesn’t risk being written off by his core constituency. But it’s a pretty acrobatic feat of rhetoric for Sondheim to suggest that the thoroughly innocuous new iteration of Into the Woods delivered by director Rob Marshall functions as a conversation piece for the enlightened as well as a Christmas Day diversion for the masses. Sondheim’s 1987 fairy-tale pastiche is plenty didactic without having to pull this sort of double duty.
A thoroughly postmodern gloss on culturally entrenched narratives buttressed by subtle references to Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal work of early-literary criticism The Uses of Enchantment, Into the Woods, written by Sondheim and James Lapine (who also did the book and directed 1984’s Sunday in the Park with George), Into the Woods is cut from the same cloth as—and some might contend slightly ripped off from—William Goldman’s 1973 novel The Princess Bride, the film version of which bowed in the same year that the show first hit Broadway. Like Goldman, Sondheim and Lapine are interested in the symbolic and archetypal qualities of fairy tales, which they mine for both familiar narrative turns—the story intermingles the plots of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” and other Grimm’s Greatest Hits—and subversive commentary. In the brilliantly written, full-ensemble opening number, the protagonists of each story head into the titular forest in search of either adventure or salvation, which are inextricably linked in each case; their verses are whistling-in-the-dark arias of courage (“the woods are just trees”/“the trees are just wood”), but the true horrors that await them are the disappointments and contingencies of the real world beyond the page, which in turn throw them—and the audience—off their ritualized narrative trails.
None of this is necessarily lost on Marshall and Lapine—who did the screenplay himself—but the omissions here are brutal. The kept-princess Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is not one of the show’s more vivid characters—she’s a pale parody of an innocent ingénue à la Sweeney Todd’s similarly bland Johanna—but her demise at the hands (or rather feet) of a rampaging Giant early in Act II of the stage production brings an aspect of random tragedy to the proceedings—one that presages the similarly arbitrary death of the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) a little later on. The filmmakers may believe that eliminating the first murder streamlines the proceedings, but besides wreaking havoc with Sondheim’s elaborate overall doubling structure, it also prohibits Rapunzel’s mother, the Witch (Meryl Streep), from receiving the truly cruel cosmic comeuppance originally laying for her—a devastating blow that complicates her presentation as a villainess. Lapine has also softened things when it comes to the Baker’s Wife, whose second-act dalliance with the married Prince Charming (Chris Pine), framed explicitly in the play as a sexual encounter, becomes a bit of chaste kissing, which allows the children in the audience (and any overly moralistic accompanying adults) to feel uncomplicatedly sad about her passing, in effect enshrining her as exactly the sort of posthumously pristine parental figure that Disney has trafficked in since 1942’s Bambi.
Whatever one thinks of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007), it didn’t hedge and trim its source material this way: its failings were entirely to do with the more practical matters of casting, singing, and staging. Into the Woods has some of those problems as well, bound up—as in Sweeney Todd—in the person of Johnny Depp, whose Big Bad Wolf amounts to little more than a botched cartoon-movie-star cameo rather than the wickedly insinuating dirty-old-man vamp that it should be, its innocuousness rendering the resurrected Little Red Riding Hood’s subsequent “I Know Things Now” utterly illogical as its cleverly turned lyrics about adolescent sexual awakening seem to come out of nowhere. Among the giant stars doing their summer stock best, Streep does better than Depp—she gives good crone and uses the thinness of her singing voice to convey the character’s strained impatience—while as Cinderella, Anna Kendrick gets the same ardent close-ups as Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables, all the better to watch her emote while singing, my dear. In the pivotal role of the Baker, a manqué of male befuddlement cast by fate as the story’s moral center, James Corden is teddy-bear-ish and anguished—a lot less entertaining than Pine’s vain prince, who gets the movie’s best scene opposite a second nameless royal hunk played Billy Magnussen: trading stories of alpha-male woe while prancing atop a waterfall for the number “Agony,” they’re likeably laughable figures, and Marshall even sneaks a little bit of good-old fashioned Broadway homoeroticism in the back door.
Alas, the clean, witty shooting and choreography of “Agony” is an outlier in a movie that tries to split the difference between the up-close-and-personal naturalism of Les Misérables and the screwed-and-chopped editing rhythms of Marshall’s previous Chicago (2002)—with the added distraction of CGI special effects planted squarely into the middle of the action. Typically, live productions of Into the Woods use lo-fi tricks in lieu of big, Julie Taymor-ish sets; they invite the audience members to use their imagination to fill out the more spectacular aspects of the story. To give Marshall credit, he’s pretty judicious about showing us the Giants, who are usually either enshrouded in fog or hidden by trees, and he uses costumes and practical makeup for the more fantastical characters (like Depp’s wolf), but there’s still something phony about the locations in a way that’s more suggestive of digital futzing than old-fashioned stagecraft. On stage, Into the Woods is intimate despite its sprawling cast of characters. Onscreen, though, it feels desperately dispersed, and that sense of visual displacement gradually affects the thematic and emotional continuity between the different storylines (connections strengthened on stage by doubled-up casting whereby different but symbolically sympatico supporting characters are played by the same performers).
Simply put, there doesn’t seem to be much at stake in Marshall’s Into the Woods. The real-world story about how and why Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine allowed such liberties to be taken with their material is a far more resonant and unsettling tale of compromise than the travails of the Baker and his Wife, whose desire for a child of their own requires them to continually remagnetize their respective moral compasses. Sondheim’s musical drops the final curtain on a typically double-edged note, with the traditional values of home and hearth reinscribed after a long, hard fight with its share of casualties. The false wrap-up of Act One gets reimagined as a more genuinely settled conclusion, but for one sharp, literally melodic and figuratively discordant note: Cinderella’s voice once more trilling out “I wish!” Like the reworked ending of the recent Broadway revival of Pippin, this ending gives the audience—and the characters—what they came for while suggesting that even the coziest outcome harbors fantasies of something better. Marshall’s movie keeps it but, shunted to the end of the closing credit roll, it barely registers. One imagines Sondheim in a private moment, mumbling those yearning words under his breath even as he protests publically that his adventure in the Disneyland has yielded some kind of happily-ever-after.