Despite advertising that was vague about the nature of this movie, the theater was quite full the Saturday after Christmas. Apparently wanting to see a movie and believing this to be among the most family friendly films showing at the theater – because it’s Disney and its rated PG – a lot of families with kids old enough to behave were present to see Into The Woods. It’s a story of fairy tales with their original and dark details intact, intersecting and conflicting as they journey through the woods. Each character has their purpose for being in the woods, and not all are good. It’s a story of morality and lost innocence, both on the characters’ parts and the audiences’. It challenges our perception of these fairy tale characters as well. It’s not exactly for kids, even though I know I saw it at a young age myself. It was ok because at the time, the messages flew right by me. Since coming to understand and appreciate them, I looked forward to seeing Disney’s version.
Into The Woods, some people might be surprised to learn, was a Broadway musical from 1986, written and produced by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. Its cast included Bernadette Peters as the Witch and Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife. I’ve had it on VHS for many years, and found the soundtrack on CD some years ago. The performance is roughly three hours long. The movie is only 2 hours and 4 minutes by comparison. I knew they’d be cutting things and I completely understood. Not every song is completely necessary to the story. For instance, the song “One Midnight Gone” is essentially a break in the action. Each character has their chance to tell the audience what their adventure in the woods has taught them so far. It’s important, but I knew it was probably going to be the first to be cut. When they cut “Goodbye Old Pal,” Jack’s farewell song to his best friend, Milkywhite the cow, I was disappointed, but I understood. Really I was very impressed by the first half of the movie – what would have been Act 1. It was very faithful, almost word for word verbatim of the original production. The casting was well done, choosing excellent actors and singers. It was Act 2 when things went downhill and I became very disappointed.
For me Act 2 began with the song “Ever After.” Or rather, the music that was played and not sung at all. You hear it as Cinderella marries her prince and everyone apparently got what they went into the woods for. The Bakers have a baby, Jack and his Mother are rich, and Rapunzel and her prince are reunited. Cinderella’s stepsisters are blind and the witch is powerless. Everyone is happy, except those who don’t deserve it. That’s the point of the song. Act 1 is not plagued by the difficult moral problems of Act 2, and the consequences of getting what they wanted are yet to come. It really wouldn’t have hurt them to include this song. It was the first time I really frowned and thought, “Well that’s crummy! That song is important!”
The Narrator simply disappears in the second half. Literally. The omniscient voice just goes silent. I don’t know how many other viewers actually noticed, but I certainly did. In the Broadway production, it makes sense because when the characters are confronted by the Giantess who is demanding the whereabouts of Jack, the lad who killed her husband, they try to give her the Narrator. She throws him, and he is never heard from again. In the movie we never see the Narrator, leaving him further removed from events.
The Baker’s Father was all but left out of the story. The Baker mentions him now and again, blaming his father for the curse and for abandoning him. The bad relationship haunts the Baker and its resolution is important to the overall message Into The Woods is trying to impart. I can see why the earliest portion of Baker’s Father’s role in play was cut. He mostly runs around as a crazy rhyming Rip Van Winkle type, who picks on everyone’s decisions and goads events on. For the longest time you don’t even know he is the Baker’s Father, and when it is revealed he soon drops dead! Yet in the second half his presence, ghostly or not, is pivotal, and I believe the movie did it a disservice.
In the movie, the appearance of the Baker’s father is very confusing, and in more than one way. First we see the memory of the Witch when she catches him stealing from her garden. He appears as an old man, but this happened a very long time ago. Shouldn’t he look young? When we see him again, the Baker is not surprised to see the father he never knew. It’s unclear whether the father is a ghost, but his voice echoes, making me think that was the intention. The Baker talks with him as if he’s seen him every day. They are supposed to have a song called “No More,” and it is in the singing of that song that the Baker realized just how big of a mistake it would be to run and leave his son in the care of others. This song was cut, and instead you get this very brief and strange conversation which seems to leave the Baker heartbroken and undecided. Next thing you know he’s marching back to reclaim his son. Without “No More,” I think this falls completely flat.
Johnny Depp did an excellent job as the Wolf. I was intrigued by the movie’s take on the character. The Broadway production made the wolf as wolf-like as possible without having the actor down on all fours. He wore a jacket, but almost everything else was fur. The ‘almost’ is the impressively muscled bare chest. The actor wore a snout full of teeth which did a surprisingly good job at not muffling his voice. While I can understand the desire not to put a snout on Johnny Depp, the lack thereof and the clothing he wore, particularly the hat – were confusing to me. He looked like a man dressed as a wolf who wanted to be a traveling salesman, rather than a wolf living in the woods. A salesman can be as sneaky as the Wolf was, and maybe that’s where the costume concept came from, but I’m not sure it was very effective.
I was disappointed when the princes were introduced because, not having examined the cast list and having already met the Wolf, I was expecting Johnny Depp to be a prince as well. In the original production, the actor who played the Wolf also played the role of Cinderella’s prince. This was not to save money or simplify the cast. It wasn’t even because the Wolf’s role is so brief. It is intentional because of the similarities between the two characters and how they affect those they interact with. Both the Prince and the Wolf are selfish, and both use charm and the promise of adventure to get what they want from the women they encounter. By casting them separately you lose the connection that James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim were trying to make. The fact that Disney ignored this tells me that they either chose to avoid it or didn’t understand the message being conveyed in the dual casting.
The Witch was always my favorite character. Are we supposed to like her? I don’t really know, but I always did. I liked her attitude in Act 1, and how she would use her magic to prod events along, literally. I loved Bernadette Peters’ performance. Watching Meryl Streep, I couldn’t help but compare. The attitude is different from one performance to the other. Peters was more patronizing, physical, and shrill than Streep. She would all but melt every time she heard Rapunzel sing, while Streep’s Witch only heard it once and looked worried, like the song was a call for help. I also think that Meryl Streep’s voice is deeper and she couldn’t reach some of the highest pitches that Peters did. I can’t help but feel that Peters’ performance was more effective for it.
The last song of the original production was a reprise of Into The Woods. This was not some token finale song designed only to get everyone back out on stage for a final bow. The lyrics change drastically. Rather than being confident about the journey into the woods, the lessons learned are reflected in the song. While in a movie it would be abnormal to bring back all the characters, dead or otherwise, to sing a song, for Into the Woods it is critical. My patience with the movie officially ran out when the song began during the credits…once half the audience had left. If you didn’t know about the change in lyrics you wouldn’t have noticed it in the theater environment. Its inclusion was lost on the audience and heartbreakingly anticlimactic for me.
The soundtrack of Into The Woods has always fascinated me. In many of the pieces you have characters all over the stage, singing words unique to their story, all mingling together in harmony and tempo. It’s a feat that I felt was reflected very well in the opening rendition of the Into The Woods theme. However after that, the other similar pieces were cut. One Midnight Gone, Ever After, and last Into The Woods reprise, all cut. If this movie is to be considered a musical, they cut 3/4ths of the most intricate pieces.
Overall, I was pretty pleased with the faithfulness of the first half of the movie, and satisfied with the casting. It’s the second half that just let me down again and again, cutting songs and losing the meaning of the story. The end left me bitterly unsatisfied. I was not the only one as moments after the credits started a young boy sitting in front of me stood up and loudly complained, “How long was this movie?” If a child can’t get caught up in the story and an adult feels the meaning of the story was lost, I can’t help but think that this film adaption of the musical was a failure. I award it two out of five SpaceGypsy Wagons, and I am being generous.