For the last fourteen years, the question has been raised every now and again as to whether or not the American musical will survive as a film genre in the twenty-first century. There were some optimists at the start of the new millennium – films like Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002) seemed to point towards a reemergence of the genre. But very quickly, in the wake of 9/11, movies began to move towards bleaker, less frothy material and put such ideas of a musical resurgence out of the heads of even the wildest of enthusiasts.
Yet at some point during the ensuing decade, Chicago director Rob Marshall noted that within the dismal mindset of many Americans lay the potential for an adaptation of the classic Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods – a famously thoughtful interpretation of several Grimm Brothers fairytales. He kept the project in the back of his mind for several years before finally moving it into production in 2011, aiming to deliver a musical which could stand for the looming darkness of our post-9/11 era. Of course, when the show premiered on Broadway in 1987, there were other wars, other diseases eating away at the American public’s sense of safety and security – but Marshall saw its relevance to his own moment, and sought to capitalize on that connection creatively and commercially.
The fruits of this realization are now ready to be enjoyed, or judged, and one’s opinion of the resulting film may vary depending on how one looks at it. As a movie (and a Christmastime movie at that), Into the Woods is not objectionable in any major sense – it is a well-orchestrated, clean representation of Sondheim’s and Lapine’s material, and considering how many close calls the piece has had over the years to becoming a feature, the fact that it finally fell into the safe yet oddly flexible hands of Walt Disney Pictures is rather reassuring. It could have come out of development a nasty mess, but as it is, the subject is kept tidily intact, free of awkwardness and incoherence.
That said, I rather resent the fact that so challenging a work of art should make its way to the screen in such an unchallenging presentation. For anyone familiar with the musical, it will be understood that Into the Woods (as Sondheim and Lapine composed it) possesses dark material, made up of rich psychological, musical, and sexual themes which always made it more appropriate to adult audiences than to ones consisting of little children. However, in the hands of Disney, the show has been reworked to fit a much more impressionable age demographic, and thus the masterwork has lost most of its edge, and nearly all of the political and emotional heft that it wielded on the stage.
All of this is understandable when one is thinking in the mindset of business and box office – but artistically-speaking, the musical cries out for the hand of an offbeat, imaginative director, who is willing to cinematically engage in the intricacies of words and music which set the original show apart. Marshall is a solid film director (if not a particularly ingenious one), but the stylistic platitude that defines this film is at odds with the messiness of a fairytale kingdom where life gets in the way of “happily ever after.” I like to think of what this movie might have been if Tim Burton had directed it (but not the Tim Burton of today – the one of Beetlejuice and Ed Wood twenty years ago); his visual playfulness and trademark evocation of the comically grotesque childhood nightmare might have found a wellspring of inspiration in the source material.
The same lack of creative intelligence, or resourcefulness, is evidenced in the cast; the performers here fail to capture the air of haggard testiness and devastating vulnerability that pervaded the energy of the original ensemble – something which, I fear, has less to do with any executive impediments on the part of Disney and more to do with the complacency of Marshall’s direction. Meryl Streep, as the Witch, doesn’t always make the most of her part; in the original Broadway production, Bernadette Peters did a strong job of drawing out the broad comedy as well as the insistent anger of her role, whereas Streep tends to underplay her scenes. Her strongest moments come when she is asked to portray the wounded mother figure, as in the song “Stay with Me,” but she lacks a certain sensuality and audacity which may have been more effectively achieved by the likes of Susan Sarandon, who was set to play the part during earlier discussions of the project.
Similarly, as the Baker, James Corden falls short of portraying the fear and aggressive passivity which makes his character the essential emotional protagonist of the play. Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella) can sing, but in that high-pitched, nasal style that is so typical of contemporary musical theater; it is grating to the ear, and compromises the aura of earnestness she brings to the role. On the other hand, as Cinderella’s Prince, Chris Pine is winning and funny, as if channeling Clark Gable (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”), and even if Emily Blunt is not encouraged to be nearly as delightfully frazzled (or smart, or funny) as Joanna Gleason was in the original production, she still manages to hold her own as a steady figure of lovely resolve. Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski also provide pleasant turns in smaller, more fleeting roles – but Johnny Depp’s appearance as the Wolf feels totally irrelevant, considering how such a brief appearance has been so heavily worked into the film’s marketing campaign.
Perhaps the members of the cast who are the hardest to endure, however, are the two children: as Red Riding Hood, Lilla Crawford is annoying (is that the curse of all who play the role?), and I can just see Daniel Huttlestone (who plays Jack) being a terror of egocentrism off-screen (he played in the film of Les Misérables a couple of years ago, and she was Annie on Broadway). In line with the ideal of Tim Burton as director, I long for a kooky, dazed Jack and a self-righteous, annoyed Red – the sort of misfit progeny that would believe in magic beans, kill a giant or actively resist authority. Here the younger actors snap into uninteresting molds which would have children as well-trained and emotionally atonal voice boxes, yet the great asset of movie musicals is that children needn’t be primed and practiced in order to carry a role, or a tune. It is far better to have a warbling hatchling onscreen, so to speak, than a stuffed dodo.
At this point, I am sure that I’m beginning to sound a bit nitpicky – but such is the sort of criticism that this movie inspires, for it is an instance where nothing is done wrong, yet, equally, nothing is done quite right. The final line sung in the musical (“I wish…”) works as an apt closing note for this adaptation: one wishes a lot were different, that perhaps if the film took its time (the pacing of the musical slowed down to better accommodate the potential subtleties of film), it would have grown into something richer, more mature than it is. For although Marshall has reported that it took three years to be brought together, Into the Woods has a certain “business-as-usual” coloring to its attractive palette of blues and greens – as though the content is less a focus than is its concurrence with the holidays, as well as its end-of-year eligibility for the Academy Award.
This is regrettable, especially considering Marshall’s great initial hope of generating a film that would capture the lurking sense of danger that has hung over the heads of those born in the last fifteen years. Yet I wonder if this mentality ultimately does the source material – and the audience – a disservice; the idea of dumbing down reality for the sake of children is an attitude which permeates our society, and it seems inevitable that any adaptation made with young people in mind (at least on the commercial scale of Disney) would do anything but abide by reality. The truth is that a worthwhile movie adaptation of Into the Woods is going to have to do right by an incredible musical which transcends time and association (just as the Grimm fairytales have done for centuries), and speak honestly to children about the nature of humanity.
“Careful the tale you tell… children will listen,” is what this movie rather paradoxically whispers in our ears; Into the Woods compounds this philosophy because it both succeeds and fails at living up to it. If there is to be any hope for the twenty-first century (generationally- or musically-speaking), then we must challenge ourselves as artists, parents and citizens to think outside convention and leave no patch of wood unexplored, no tale untold, no wish (nor its implications, nor its consequences) unaddressed.