In one respect, I stand before Into the Woods as a novice in evaluation before a master of composition. I feel like I can break down what does and doesn’t work in a film with the best of them, but in considering the feats of Stephen Sondheim, the crafter of the music and lyrics of the original Broadway stage work, I am severely limited. He is one of the indisputable greats and I’ve seen the term “his masterpiece” used in discussions of Into the Woods by learned figures more than once in recent weeks. As if I weren’t already preemptively chastened at the prospect of writing about this film adaptation already. Others can expound with precise expertise on the ways in which Sondheim’s musical motifs and thoughtful wordplay inform the whole work. Many can break down the changes made — for good or, more likely, ill — in taking the production from stage to screen. I can only react to what I see before me, considering how well it works as a film. And yet I can’t help but circle around around to what feeble knowledge I do have of the original work, or at least what appear to be the vestiges of something grander, darker, and more daring clinging to the edges of this film, like the grit left behind after strong tea has been tossed away in favor of something more tepid.
The plot brings together multiple familiar fairy tales, “Little Red Riding Hood,” Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Cinderella” among them, and has them overlap in surprising ways, largely through the efforts of a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt, respectively) who are gathering artifacts in order to complete a deal with a witch (Meryl Streep) which will lead to the lifting of a curse. It is the baker’s need for a white cow, for example, that leads him to trade with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), putting the enchanted beans in the young boy’s pocket. This portion is playful and pleasant, making often inspired connections, genially tweaking tropes, and generally treating the vast folklore of children’s stories as if it were the interlocking Legos of the Marvel Universe movies. It’s the stretch of Into the Woods that unfolds over the second half — after theatergoers enjoyed an intermission — that gets really interesting. It all takes a turn for darker territory, marked by infidelity, tragic death, and any number of occurrences that smartly, cynically argue that “happily ever after” was always delusional at best, a bald-faced lie at worst.
It is the divide between the joyful manipulation of fairy tale text and the intentionally poisoning of what takes place after the final page that most clearly illustrates what has gone wrong with the film adaptation of Into the Woods. There’s no sense of a change in tone, no troubling encroachment of darker doings as the film moves on. Director Rob Marshall approaches every bit of the material with the same flat-footed literalness, coming as close to a dull-witted point-and-shoot mentality as is conceivable given the fantastical nature of what he’s filming. If anything, the film gets blander as it goes on. Meryl Streep absolutely tears into her lines, sung and otherwise, in the first part of the film, putting unexpected spin on individual words like english on a cue ball. Later, after a physical transformation, she’s just sort of there in scenes, almost hanging around impatiently until she gets the chance to exit altogether. Most of the talented, well-chosen cast is similarly confined, rarely allowed to make the sort of bold, intriguing choices in their characterizations that the work presumably allows and encourages. Marshall meets them with staid stagings of the individual numbers. Only “Agony,” a duet of dueling hardship sung by a pair of princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), has any panache to it, any hint whatsoever that it’s been designed in such a way as to take advantage of being filmed rather than staged.
And so I’m back to Sondheim. I assume that the locking into celluloid of one of his signature works may be enough for some, the faltering elements only serving as a reminder of what impresses about the music and songs in the first place, the same way that I know all sorts of people who look past the flaws with the film version of Rent to value that there’s an acceptable take on their favorite musical circulating in the pop culture galaxy. I wonder, though, if this version of Into the Woods presents an unwitting argument against transporting Sondheim’s works away from their original, stagebound form. The rapid verbosity of the lyrics is sure to impress more when performed live, each song completed seeming like an Olympic feat. Here, only “Giants in the Sky” gave me a similar shiver of witnessing a significant challenge well-met, and I presume that’s in part because it was sung by a boy in his early teens who looks about five years younger. Among my shortcomings, I don’t feel qualified to definitively weigh in on whether or not Into the Woods does right by Sondheim. I hope it does. Given the rickety nature of the rest of Marshall’s film, suitable preservation of Sondheim might be about the only wish this cinematic endeavor fulfills.