How does that old song go? “If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise…” Never have truer words been spoken if one is going to see Rob Marshall's film of the 1987 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical, Into The Woods. The film version is full of surprises.
The first surprise is how absolutely beautiful the orchestrations of Sondheim's music are. They are simply gorgeous – and there are surprises in the incidental music if you listen to it carefully. Snatches of tunes from other Sondheim musicals prove an eloquent and humorous counterpoint to the action.
The second surprise is the way the kingdom and the reality of the Woods is realised. Both beautiful and tangled, sprawling and specific, this is a fairytale land that is both utterly believable and completely magical – trails, trees, brooks, towers, graves, tracks, flowers, fields, castles, brambles, mountains, hills, boulders, streams, tar pits, waterfalls, bushes and fields, all magnificently and evocatively lit, haunting and tantalising.
The third surprise is the excellent way the magic is realised. Not really a surprise, I guess, because film can achieve more than stage every time – but here there is wonderful illusion: the wild, explosive appearances and disappearances of the Witch, the evocation of Cinderella's dress, the beanstalk, the revival from death of Milky White, the blue moon, the remarkable ending to Last Midnight. The magic is beautifully, compellingly realised.
The fourth surprise encompasses the changes to plot, character and score. They are numerous, in some cases astonishing. If you know the stage musical, you are likely to be perplexed at best, horrified at worst.
However, this is a film adaptation – it doesn't seek to recreate the stage magic. It creates its own. The Rapunzel scenes, for instance, have never been better than they appear here; nor has the meeting of the two sibling Princes, which culminates in the delicious “Agony“, ever been able to reach the heights here reached, at least in terms of physical beauty of the surrounds – forest glades, bubbling mountain brook/waterfall, rocky outlook from which the kingdom can be surveyed.
Not all of the changes are welcome. Truncating the narrative and score brings its own consequences. There is a strange absence of urgency in the first half; no one is especially desperate to achieve their wish, the Witch excepted. Cinderella appears uncertain about the Prince from the start, which undermines the joy that should be experienced when she marries him. The jubilant celebration that normally occurs at the end of Act One, that glorious moment of unrestrained pleasure as every major character has their wish granted and revels in the prospect of “Ever After“, is all but absent, so the true high point is never reached.
Which makes the descent into gloom and misery – and truth – less effective than it should be. Without true celebration, regret and sorrow don't have the same bite.
There is one serious cavil with this film: it seeks to simplify the complexities present in Sondheim's lyrics and Lapine's book. Eradicating No More and the reprise of Agony fundamentally changes the dynamics. Leaving out small moments of musical reflection, such as Jack's farewell to Milky White or the First and Second Midnights, strips away some of the subtleties, the insights into character, which make Into The Woods such a richly rewarding experience.
No More is the emotional and story-telling apex of the stage musical. It's the moment when the Baker faces up to and accepts his past, his present and his future; the moment when he finally makes a choice, a choice to survive, to fight, to protect his child. To stop wallowing in his own misery. It's his moment in the Woods, and just like his wife's before him, it affects all the other key players.
Here, the notion of the song is reduced to a few lines, James Corden blubbing like an abandoned baby Walrus, and Simon Russell Beale's unexplained manifestation of the Baker's absent or dead (or both) father. It's a very poor substitute for one of Sondheim's most remarkable songs.
But perhaps it was the lesser of two evils. Certainly, there is nothing about any of James Corden's singing which leaves you yearning for more. He puts the “ord” into everything here, not just his name, from start to finish. And while there is a solid narrative reason for him to function as narrator of the overall tale, his delivery is so deathly dull as to make the narration otiose. It's a dreary, self-important performance, aimless, charmless and chock full of missed opportunities. He sings It Takes Two like the lyric is I Am The One.
This is made all the more disconcerting because Emily Blunt's Baker's Wife is an absolute delight in every respect. Subtle and sure, Blunt navigates the many emotions and desires which mark out the character perfectly; she is the solid heart of the film. You want her to have a child, you want her to have the Prince, you want her to have her “And”; she effortlessly takes you on her journey. Her Moments In The Woods is truly delicious.
Anna Kendrick makes a marvellous Cinderella, a precise balance between fairytale character and real human. Her scenes with Blunt are wonderful and, for me anyway, Steps of the Palace is the highlight of the film. Kendrick sings with gorgeous precision, every note and every word given exact attention. She is stunningly attractive in every sense and her final exchange with Chris Pine's Prince is beautifully bleak.
Pine is quite sensational; the complete embodiment of the one-dimensional, pretty Disney prince; all swash and buckle and gleaming teeth. It was a mistake not to have him clean-shaven; his scruffy visage makes his straying from the path seem predictable. But, really, he is terrific and happily sends himself up mercilessly, and to great comic effect, in Agony.
Billy Magnussen matches him and perhaps makes more from less as Rapunzel's Prince, Pine's little brother. Their sibling rivalry is skilfully and humourously established and Magnussen opts for the clean-cut, perfectly formed, boy-next-door Prince, albeit with tight leather trousers and a nice line in bumbling, comical schtick. It's all perfectly judged, and his scenes with Rapunzel glow with warmth and true love. Her healing his eyes is truly magical.
The film gives greater scope to Rapunzel, and Mackenzie Mauzy grasps the opportunity with all her locks. She sings divinely, establishes her love for her Prince in an instant of screen time and does quite beautifully detailed work in her scenes with her mother, Meryl Streep's Witch. Stay With Me becomes an astonishing duet, although Mauzy is silent mainly. But she gives Streep a lot to work with, and the result is overwhelmingly affecting.
Streep is, throughout, mesmerising. She misses no tricks, finds every nuance and possibility in the text, and creates a Witch desolate, wracked with pain and determined to secure what matters to her. Her whirling dervish arrivals and departures are glorious and she knows how to sell a song, to find new tricks to tunes you think you really know. She is funny, sexy and forthright. Last Midnight is as good as I have ever seen it performed, thrilling and exultant.
Tracey Ullmann is a memorable and quite specifically astute Jack's Mother. I liked her common sense approach to everything, her disdain for Milky White and her desperate fear of poverty and then adaptation to wealth. Her sense of risible grandeur contrasted nicely against her early pragmatism. Her final moments were very touching.
Joanna Riding is perfect as the ghost of Cinderella's mother (graceful, ethereal singing), Annette Crosbie gives good Grandmother and the marvellous Frances de la Tour makes the Giant's Wife touching but murderous.
I didn't care for either Jack or Red Riding Hood; true youngsters just can't find the depths these characters have. Johnny Depp provided a fresh take on the Wolf, but much was lost because of the youth of Red and the failure to double the role of a Wolf and Prince. Surprisingly, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch are not as effective as Cinderella's awful family as they ought to be; partly, it's the design of their look but it's not just that. Missed opportunities.
By permitting severe close-ups and multi-perspective views of scenes, film will always allow the cast the “less is more” option, usually to great effect. Others may have created better live, singing characterisations on stage, but that does not diminish the bulk of the work here.
No. The issue here, Corden's spectacular mis-casting aside, is that not enough of the stage show is translated to the screen. The film is neither a version of the stage play or its own special creation – it's a mid-position path; neither runt nor prize winner. It's not a simple fairytale and nor is it a complex examination of the differences between wishing, wanting and having. And because of that, it slightly loses its way after the Giant's Wife arrives in the kingdom. But not fatally.
The thing is Sondheim, as usual, was ahead of this particular game. He had the Baker's Wife sing:
“Just remembering you've had an “and”
When you're back to “or”
Makes the “or” mean more
Than it did before.
Now I understand”
This film creates an “And“. It's perfectly possible to enjoy both film and stage show; but, for my money, the film beautifully proves that the stage show means more than it did before the film. Into The Woods is a masterpiece; Rob Marshall's film makes you see that clearly.
Don't miss it. But be careful what you wish for…