The Films of 2014: Into the Woods

A disclaimer: I come to Into the Woods, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s stage musical, with what might be called loaded expectations.  The musical, a mélange of fractured fairy tales (“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Red Riding Hood,” and others, with all of the violent bits left intact), has been in my life for a long time.  Since it premiered in 1987 I’ve seen at least three live productions, acted in a fourth, and listened to the original cast recording more times than I can count. 

I’m of the opinion that Into the Woods is second-tier Sondheim—it doesn’t have the crazy grandeur of Sweeney Todd, the shimmering elegance of A Little Night Music, or the ironic sting of Company and Follies.  It has structural problems, too, especially in its second act, when the show’s farcical comedy gives way to a kind of gloomy didacticism (“witches can be right, / giants can be good,” go the lyrics to “No One Is Alone,” a lullaby about moral relativity).  Nevertheless, I have a deeply personal attachment to this material.  It’s not just that I love Into the Woods in spite of its flaws; it’s that I’ve seen and heard (and sung) it so many times that I’m no longer capable of really looking at it objectively.  And even as I went into the film with a jaded skepticism—it is, after all, a big studio picture timed to coincide with both Christmas and Oscar season—another part of me really wanted it to be good. 

Turns out it is good.  In some ways the film even improves upon its source material, cutting several of the less important songs and generally tightening up the story.  (That troublesome second act still doesn’t quite work, but it’s better.)  It occurred to me while watching the bravura opening sequence, in which we’re variously introduced to the fairy-tale characters whose paths will soon cross, that Sondheim’s music is almost ideally suited to filming; as a composer whose songs zig-zag back and forth between characters in different spaces, his sensibility is essentially cinematic to begin with.  The film also makes use of special effects that bring the magical elements of the story (a giant, a beanstalk, several magical transformations) to life in ways that aren’t always felicitously handled on stage.        

Marshall’s direction is straight-forward and effective, and the performances are almost uniformly solid.  (Two exceptions: Lilla Crawford as Little Red and Johnny Depp as the wolf who preys on her, both grating.)  Meryl Streep is given the showiest role as a witch who, though in possession of magic powers (and blue hair), is revealed to be motivated by desires that are recognizably human.  She’s also given a whopper of a musical number (“Last Midnight”) on which to make her exit from the film, which she effectively nails.  It’s Emily Blunt, though, who manages to steal the film in a quietly brilliant performance as the childless Baker’s Wife, who, like everyone else in the show, is left wondering whether she really wanted what she wished for in the first place.  Blunt looks luminous, and she brings warmth, humor, and a canny intelligence to one of the show’s trickier parts.  She’s one of the many reasons why Sondheim fans should be pleased with this film.  Is it great cinema?  Perhaps not.  But Marshall’s Into the Woods works at least as good on film as it does on the stage.  It’s a Christmas present that any musical theater fan should be happy to receive.   

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