Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Into The Woods Almost Gets It Right

I grew up on the stage play of Into The Woods, so there's a slight chance this may be biased...
When Rob Marshall was first announced to direct the Sondheim classic, I literally groaned. What Marshall had managed to do to Yeston's Nine was nothing short of abysmal. So how could he possibly be expected to make a quality Sondheim flick? Apparently Disney was less nervous in spite of their own subpar experience with the director shortly after... Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Regardless, the film went ahead... and some very head scratching changes were made.
If you don't already know the story of Into The Woods... well you probably actually do. It's a wonderful amalgam of classic fairytales all being interconnected to create a new and very much more adult message. Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk) and Little Red (of Little Red Riding Hood) both discover the world... and perhaps their own sexuality. Cinderella learns that happily ever after is actually somewhere in-between great and awful. And the Princes of apparently every fairy tale ever are pretty much just spoiled rich kids who only see the world and people in it as something they can possess. Into The Woods is supposed to put an adult spin on the stories we grew up with as children. And it's supposed to have a very intriguing dark side.
Yet, somewhere along the line, as Disney was putting this film into production, they lost sight of something very important... stakes. It is odd to jump so immediately into the second act as the film was forced to do without an intermission. But it is even odder to take several of the most important deaths out of the story altogether. I understand not wanting to kill off Rapunzel since Disney does consider her a franchise character now. But everything that the Witch does in the second act becomes lost when the character simply runs off. Suddenly the Witch becomes just a whiney character with no real purpose. Similarly, the lack of the Narrator as a separate character manages to both take away a critical sense of comedy from the story and drops the stakes of the second act even further. To not have that character die as well as keeping Rapunzel alive suddenly forces the second act into this odd hole wherein the amazing "characters dropping like flies" thing never occurs. If only two or maybe three characters die out of an expected five or six... a crucial sense of urgency becomes lost.
Likewise, the intentional dropping of a few songs in the second act limits this film even further. Certainly one has to consider runtime, but that likely should have been done in the first half where we all already know the classic stories being told.
On another note, in spite of enjoying this film to a stronger degree than either of Rob Marshall's last two, I cannot give him credit for a good directing job. He did just enough as director not to piss me off. Sure he kept the musical numbers in the real world instead of trying to pull them to some fantasy stage as he did in Chicago (which worked) and Nine (which really really didn't)... and some individual acting performances were great, as if that needed to be said about Meryl Streep. But Marshall also didn't have enough imagination to open things up and allow multiple character moments to occur on screen at the same time. It's perplexing to watch a musical these days and two, three, or maybe twelve different voices may be going at the same time in a song, but we're stuck on only one of those characters... Yes, film is very different from stage, but some visual notes should be taken from what does work on a stage when adapting from that medium.
This poster probably says it the best...
I also cannot separate myself from the overall choppiness between numbers... and particularly in the middle when they try to find a quick fix in order to combine the end of act one to the beginning of act two. I probably sound like a spoiled brat about all of this, but my issues come from a legitimate place of love for the property in question. Into The Woods is simply one of the best Broadway musicals of the last thirty years. And while it did manage to finally get a big-budget, big-screen adaptation, I can't help but feel like something crucial to its emotional success has been lost.

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